SEDUCED BY SPAIN AND VERSE
Classical guitar music meets the poetry of Byron in an unusual union, writes Emily Ritchie
Amusician and an actor are exploring uncharted territory and pioneering a whole new genre of live performance. The only problem is, they don’t know what to call it. “It’s not quite a poetry reading, nor a musical, nor a play, so I don’t know how to define it,” says actor, writer and director Tama Matheson. “It’s a unique theatrical event, does that work?”
Matheson and classical guitarist Karin Schaupp have created Don Juan, a show based on Byron’s poetry that combines guitar music with dialogue and acting. “In the first instance I would probably call it a play with music,” says Schaupp. “But it’s very hard to categorise.”
Matheson, artistic director of the Brisbane Shakespeare Festival and a regular director with Opera Australia, wrote the script and inhabits the role of Byron, who fluctuates between his own world and the world of his poem, Don Juan. Schaupp accompanies the performance on guitar, playing pieces by the likes of Tarrega and Yradier, music that is rhythmically and thematically in dialogue with the words. “I don’t just sit down and read while Karin sits down and plays music,” Matheson says. “The drama is utterly dependent on the music and the music is utterly dependent on the drama. The two tell the same story and interact in a very dramatic way.”
The Don Juan project began after Schaupp saw Matheson perform with Brisbane-based chamber orchestra the Camerata of St John’s in 2014. “He was playing Bach in a show he had written that was interspersed with music and I just thought it was a work of genius … I just had to work with him,” she says.
Schaupp approached Matheson straight after the show to ask if they could collaborate: “Luckily he agreed.”
After a few brainstorming sessions, they decided a Spanish-inspired story was the way to go, especially given the vast repertoire of Spanish music in the classical guitar canon. “We tossed up a couple of ideas from Spanish literature, obviously Don Quixote came up and a couple other more obscure things,” Matheson says. “And then I said, ‘You know, Lord Byron wrote a Don Juan.’ ”
According to Matheson, the 19th-century English poet was “the most interesting character in all of literary history perhaps”. He suggested Byron’s poem, not only because of the Spanish influences but also the intriguingly satirical nature of its adaptation. Byron’s Don Juan, which is based on the fictional libertine whose name has become synonymous with womanisers, reverses the myth, portraying Juan as a man easily seduced by women. “We immediately realised that if we were able to marry Byron’s extraordinary life with his extraordinary poem, then we would have a superb structure for a musical-theatrical entertainment,” Matheson says.
For Schaupp, whose mother was a guitarist and who has collaborated with the likes of David Williamson, Genevieve Lacey and Katie Noonan, accompanying an actor isn’t too different from accompanying a singer. “Tama is very, very musical, and when he is speaking the Don Juan poem, it has a rhythm to it … it’s a really musical interaction,” she says.
Schaupp also plays a few acting roles throughout the show, including the ghost of Byron’s mother. “Karin is a genius,” Matheson says. “She can do anything on the guitar and on top of that she gets up and acts in the middle of the show. She is so versatile.”
The pair are touring Don Juan across the country, first at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music next week in Townsville, then the International Guitar Festival in Adelaide and various regional venues.
The duo says the show has been well received by audiences so far. “The most common thing is that people say, ‘I didn’t know what to expect but I really loved it,’ ” Schaupp says.
While the marriage of music and words is hardly new, Matheson and Schaupp believe they have created an exciting blend of two wellloved performance styles. “The music enhances the words and the words give the music a narrative context that people can relate to,” Schaupp says. “I think that’s what makes it so special.”
will be performed at the Australian Festival of Chamber Music in Townsville on August 6, then in Adelaide on August 12, Nowra on August 18 and Grafton on August 21.
Tama Matheson and guitarist Karin Schaupp