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Melbourne Festival Review: Ancient Rain

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Earmarked as one of the festival highlights, Ancient Rain brings together a pseudo-god of Australian songwriting in Paul Kelly, with internationally renowned singer and storyteller Camille O’Sullivan, re-telling and imagining the works of some of Ireland’s most well-known and loved poets, set to music. Add to the mix the beautiful compositions of Irish pianist and O’Sullivan’s long-time collaborator, Feargal Murray, and you’ve got the makings of a creative stew that will not leave you undernourished.
 
The evening is a mixture of song and spoken word, set to the musical compositions of Kelly and Murray, and the sound effects of O’Sullivan. Funnily enough, in spite of being one of the most accomplished performers this country’s ever produced, Kelly’s nerves are almost visible during the opening spoken word recital of Seamus Heaney’s Digging. You can’t help but feel he’s a little uncomfortable without an instrument in hand, or a tune in his voice. Then again, perhaps it’s easy to be a little judgemental when putting him alongside O’Sullivan, one of the more powerful storytellers you are ever likely to see on these shores. The contrast between the musical tune in her voice and the flat, monotone of Kelly in the spoken word segments is immense. However, when Kelly picks up his guitar for his composition around Heaney’s Act of Union, it’s enough to make your hairs stand on end.
 
The subject matter they’re working with is bleak, albeit laced with a bit of dark humour. The line “English: the perfect language to sell pigs in,” from Michael Hartnett’s A Farewell to English was enough to bring a wry chuckle from the audience. Although not written as songs, there’s something incredibly musical about these works. The first refrain performed from the titular piece, Jimmy MacCarthy’s Ancient Rain, is almost symphonic, as the backing band – themselves a quite accomplished ensemble in Dan Kelly, Paul Byrne and Sokol Koka on cello – are utilised to mesmerising effect to match with O’Sullivans soaring vocals.
 
Credit must also go to the design team for creating simple, yet extremely effective visuals. Kelly stands above clouds in delivering his rendition of W.B. Yeats’ An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, and O’Sullivan cuts a haunting figure, covered in a red veil, leading into the most memorable retelling of the evening: Paula Meehan’s The Statue of the Virgin at Granard Speaks referencing the 1984 death of 15-year-old Ann Lovett who died during childbirth next to a grotto in Granard. An incredibly affecting piece to close out the first act.
 
The second act opens with a bit more rock’n’roll. At one point, you could swearthere was the slightest hint of something resembling Radiohead in the re-imaginings. With such an elite ensemble of musicians on the one stage, you’d be forgiven for wanting the night to go on for an extra hour or two. A very cleverly designed performance, beautifully presented. One of the picks of this year’s festival for sure.
 
BY EBEN ROJTER