Opera has clearly come a long way since Puccini – so far that it can be performed by one man with a dedicated sound engineer. The Rug is definitely an opera for modernity – utilising technology in an effective manner, balancing pathos with humour and anger, a combination of operatic singing with other musical styles, and reflecting modern themes that would have been alien to Handel (at least in the issues Handel wrote music about – I am sure similar issues were relevant to the man). Although, The Rug is not something that is for someone looking for a light and fluffy night out – and it probably won’t appeal too much to the type of man that is being critiqued – it is definitely a show that should start a conversation about toxic Australian masculinity. Pretty intense show on the “pale male”, really.
The Rug is not subtle in its themes – it in fact makes the point visually and aurally very clear – but it does cover a wide variety of different topics, centred around a common issue. That issue is toxic masculinity, and it goes into a lot of detail to examine the impact of this burning topic on a planetary, socio-cultural, and individual level. What made this interesting was that it started as an almost comical display, but as the show progressed the humour slowly became less and less, and the ugly nature of what it means to be a “pale male” truly came out.
There were also some interesting history lessons in there – without giving anything away, it has clearly examined historical events and individuals, whilst simultaneously mocking modern revisionist attempts to sanitise Australian colonial history.
From a musical perspective, the show was interesting. It was not the sort of opera one sits back and listens to while appreciating the beauty of existence – rather, the music was as varied and confronting as the themes. Vocally, the singer (Ben Grant, who also wrote the show) clearly knows his stuff – channelling classical training, while also having a pop star energy and even a bit of regular acting involved. The use of pre-recorded sounds – instrumental, atmospheric, and vocal – was also handled well. Although technology can fail, and it can be dangerous mixing a live performance with pre-recorded effects, The Rug handled it very well. It would be interesting to see how this would be performed with a live ensemble – a lot of the music could have been transferred easily, and that could add to the performance a little bit more. Tragically, there was just a slight lack of fullness that often comes with pre-recorded affairs – but this is a minor complaint (and potential snobbery on this author’s part). It did not detract overall from the show. The use of vocal effects was also a cool choice.
Finally, the actual aesthetics of the show were clearly well thought out. Again, although not subtle (plastic dinosaur suit – inspired choice), the costume choices added so much to the performance. Were this simply a fat man singing in a tuxedo it would not nearly have had the same impact. Then of course, there were two rugs at play – a wig, and a physical rug. Both were used to great effect, and the symbolism for both was handled very well. As noted in an interview, “what lies beneath the rug” is the crux of the whole performance, and the visual elements are handled well in that regard. Suitably impressive.
The Rug is not a show that pulls punches, and certainly not subtle in getting its message across, but certainly something to consider watching if you want your opera to be challenging, both intellectually and visually.
The Rug is on at La Mama Courthouse from 31 October – 11 November 2018. Tickets, show times and accessibility information can be found on the La Mama website.