My first reaction to Rembrandt Live is that it is just delightful.
My second reaction is that calling a show ‘delightful’ feels a bit like damning with faint praise, and that’s not what I mean. Rembrandt Live is delightful, in the sense that it makes you smile, it’s as light and airy as a mouthful of mousse, it flashes by in what feels much less than 50 minutes, with barely enough time to see the pictures, hear the music, watch the dance unfold, sending you back out into a balmy Sydney evening all flush with art.
But that shade of delightful is starting to sound, well, a little trivial, erring on the fluffy, and Rembrandt Live is absolutely not that.
Yes, it’s art at its most digestible, but it’s also exquisitely done, with a curator’s eye for visuals, a musician’s ear for sound and a theatre director’s instinct for drama.
The show takes you on a tour of the Art Gallery of NSW’s visiting exhibition, Rembrandt and the Golden Age, featuring works of 17th Century Dutch painters drawn from the Rijksmuseum, the national collection of the Netherlands.
Rembrandt is the headline, but the exhibition chiefly consists of works by his contemporaries, which proves to be a fascinating insight into a time and a place. Dutch colonialism, wealth and luxury, thoughts of death, attitudes to religion, daily life, parenting, love … It’s all there.
With the help of the musicians from the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra and three dancers, the pictures come to life, from the moment you walk in to see a woman, dressed in 17th century costume, wandering behind a frame like room divider, playing a recorder. It’s Melissa Farrow, baroque flautist, doing the pied piper thing as she leads a curious audience to the next performance pop-up.
A five-piece band, including singer Josie Ryan (of Josie and the Emeralds) plays a captivating selection of music by relative no-names in the classical pantheon, thoughtfully selected by music curator Paul Dyer.
Then, just as you are tuning into the up-close-and-personal experience of virtuosic musicians playing just footsteps away from you, three more costumed characters emerge from the crowd: the dancers have arrived.
John Bell, director, and Kelly Abbey, choreographer, have build a little drama with masterful economy. All it takes is two men and one woman, and there you have it: a story. Who will dance first? Who can jump higher? Who will get the girl? Or will the girl have neither?
Dancers Talia Fowler, Neale Whittaker and Stephen Tannos mix mime, ballet, acrobatics and a sprinkling of street dancing in what feels like an improvised and cheeky diversion to the music, bringing any notions of high culture back to basic humanity.
So, is Rembrandt Live just an arty bouchon for the soundbite generation? Or is it a thoughtful way in to a period which is more surprising, more complex than you might understand from an encounter with chiaroscuro oil paintings and tinkling harpsichords?
The high production values, the extraordinary musicianship, the thinking involved in navigating an audience round a variety of performance spaces with the lightest of touches, and the grins on everyone’s faces (including the performers) suggests that it is the latter.