MANSION: When Darkness Meets Desire

The-Cast-of-MANSION-photo-by-Tim-LevyOriginally created in Belgium in the late 19th and early 20th century as travelling dance halls, spielgeltents, with their unique ambience of old-world elegance, have become established as favourite venues around Australia for a variety of purposes, but mainly for the staging of risqué cabaret, burlesque and circus presentations.

Currently located in the Moore Park Entertainment Quartet, probably the largest spiegeltent in Australia, the Sydney Spiegletent, is offering a tantalising summer program of shows designed to challenge and extend popular concepts of burlesque.

The first of these was The Marvellous Elephant Man – The Musical, which drew on the unique ambience of the spiegeltent to enhance a story which itself was set in the world of 19th century circus side-shows. Now comes Mansion, written, produced and directed by Bass G. Fam, which tackles a much darker subject.

With a large cast of experienced dancers and acrobats, “Mansion” attempts to tell a gothic horror story set in a mysterious mansion in which a newly widowed mother named Mel Walker (Skylar Delphinus) and her children, Levi (Lukas White) and Rachel (Issy Fox) take refuge, hoping to make a new beginning, only to find that the mansion is already inhabited by a malevolent caretaker, Mr Emsworth (Bass G.Fam himself) and a collection of ghouls, zombies and demons. All seem intent on subjecting the new occupants to all manner of indignities.

At least that was the premise of the pre-publicity. However, very little of this could be deduced from the performance itself, and it was difficult to escape the thought that this show had been concepted for an environment rather different to that offered by the Sydney Spiegeltent.

As the lights dimmed, the show commenced promisingly with a strange figure stomping his walking stick loudly as he moved unsettlingly among the audience. Then a heavily-amplified voice-over began to intone a detailed story-line which was augmented with pumping versions of re-mixed popular songs, loud screams and howling wind sound effects.

The live performances consisted mostly of dances; acrobatic adagios including one in which Levi dances with this dead father, solos or large group dances. But how the characters related to each other and how the various elements illustrated the narration, was not always decipherable, especially as the dances were choreographed in an abstract contemporary dance style which felt at odds with the premise, and were punctuated by competently performed circus acts on a variety of apparatus including silks, Cyr wheel and chairs, which had obviously been shoe-horned into the concept.

The fact that the faces of many of the performers were hidden under rubber horror-masks or grungy wigs and they were wearing ill-fitting, unflattering costumes which appeared to have been rescued from wardrobe throw-out bins or local op-shops, did not assist in building empathy for, or interest in, any of the characters.

Even the dark lighting plot seemed designed to distract attention away from the paucity of scenic elements which might have helped the audience imagine that everything was taking place in a haunted mansion. Given the possibilities offered by the spiegeltent’s mirrors and leadlights, perhaps if the whole show had been set in a haunted spiegeltent, it may have been easier to succumb to the concept.

In fairness though, it should be noted that there were many in the audience who embraced the Halloween vibe, seemed unfazed by any of the above and rewarded the performance and the performers with enthusiastic applause at the conclusion.

MANSION: When Darkness Meets Desire
Sydney Spiegeltent – The Entertainment Quarter, Moore Park (Sydney)
Performance: Wednesday 1 November 2023
Season continues to 19 November 2023
Information and Bookings:

Image: The Cast of MANSION – photo by Tim Levy

Review: Bill Stephens OAM