Concert Hall, QPAC
December 3, 2017
Nancy Wake was a colossal force. A larger than life, uncompromising woman who witnessed such barbaric Nazi atrocities in the Second World war that she became a leading figure in the Maquis groups of the French Resistance and was one of the most decorated servicewoman. She was a brave, ruthless fighter dubbed White Mouse by the Germans because she evaded capture.
The White Mouse’s reach is ambitious. It prompted doubt as to whether a concert-theatre piece on a modestly dressed QPAC stage, albeit stylishly illuminated, could do justice to Wake’s astonishing story. This reviewer wondered if the music would be compromised by the drama and serve as background wallpaper, or, if the theatre would be marginalised by Camerata’s thoughtful programme design and stunning delivery of its eclectic choices, which included Edith Piaf’s Non, je ne regretted rien sung by the accomplished Meg Hamilton.
Actor and writer Tama Matheson’s bittersweet script was fuelled by pathos, irony and eye-twinkling humour. It was easy to be swept up in the story-telling. Matheson proved to be a phenomenal shape-shifter, superbly versatile. For he took the role of major figures in Wake’s life – including her mother, a cold-hearted bible-thumper, Henri Fiocci, her rich husband, colleagues Captains Henri Tardivat and Ian Garrow, as well as various Nazi interrogators – and adopted a dizzying range of accents. (The plummy, what ho British incarnation, a tad overdone.)
Actor Veronica Neave was brilliant as Wake, a refreshing liberating tonic in her tough talking, irreverence as she stomped across the stage or climbed the set’s higher reaches, which served as The Pyrenees, an interrogation cell or forest in which Wake parachuted into a tree. Neave also peddled despair believably.
On the ‘pedalling’ front one of the most gripping cameos is of Wake riding a bicycle for a 400-kilometre round trip across enemy lines to retrieve a new set of codes accompanied by a driving, invigorating extract from Carl Vine’s Smith’s Alchemy.
Sally-Ann Djachenko looked every bit the glam 40s gal in a green, snug dress with authentically coiffed hair. Her haunting rendition of Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre for violin and string orchestra was unforgettably stark in its beauty, her violin dripped tears.
Camerata wisely shrugged off classical traditions; there was an absence of bowing and turning to the audience for applause. The Camerata, centrally positioned, with most players (why not all?) in 40s gear, had presence.
The deliveries of Gershwin, Ravel, Vine, Elgar and Hartmann gems arranged by Gail Aitken were polished, feathery light, driven or achingly sad. The music acted as commentator, mood setter and earmarked location. The reoccurring second movement of Ravel’s String Quartet in F, represented Wake’s sojourns in France and Elgar’s Nimrod from Enigma Variations conjured England.
This was engaging and significant, an enjoyable event brokered by the productive, no frills alliance between music and theatre where each art form was fully realised yet supportive of each other. Such success in the vexed terrain of interdisciplinary venture is rare.