A smouldering epitaph of a wondrous soul. The life of the first woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Bertha Von Suttner’s, eternal embers drift on a peaceful pilgrimage surmounting the globe and now in Melbourne, Australia.
I hear faint footsteps on the boards and an unnerving sound of something sliding towards me, down the aisle of The Butterfly Club. I turn and see the long skirt of her period costume and she glides up to the stage.
The statuesque figure resembling the Venus de Milo is Maxi Blaha. In her native Austrian accent she eloquently reiterates Bertha Von Suttner’s peaceful request to Lay Down Your Arms. Maxi extends her arms above her head and her folk harmonies give voice to Suttner’s life and Nobel Peace Prize pacifist novel.
Georg Buxhofer accompaniment of constant base notes on guitar keeps the fire burning. His original compositions set the tone of the biographical story.
His execution of his Fender base guitar is extraordinary. He played four strings as if they were six strings of an acoustic flamenco guitar. Confirming my assumption of his classical training. His finger picking served both percussively and as a metronome.
Buxhofer and Blaha are a complimentary duo in snippets of songs from Nina Simone and Joan Baez.
Susan F Wolf’s play describes the formative people in Bertha’s life in the form of characterisations. Alexander Hauer directs Blaha to use these key figures to narrate her transition from socialising in the Austrian Court to becoming an accomplished Author. Blaha effortlessly jumps from character to character.
Maxi is captivating from the beginning as Bertha’s mother. Narrating her exploitation of Bertha’s accomplishments in languages and singing in Austrian Court.
Segments of songs provide an intermission in the dialogue. The words sung hauntingly by Blaha, echo Bertha’s heart break of her elderly father’s passing. The former Count Kinksy, a military Field Marshall, is survived by his wife who is of a lower social status. This becomes an eventual obstruction in a suitable marriage for her ageing daughter.
After failed attempts of an operatic career, Bertha becomes a teacher and consequently falls in love with a fellow student. The Von Suttner’s are the parents of her junior lover.
Bertha is much older than Arthur. His parents break the union and Bertha is sent from Vienna to Paris to be secretary to their friend Alfred Noble. Georg and Maxi embrace this sadness with their rendition of the tune and lyrics of Nina Simone’s “Little Girl Blue”.
The lovers Arthur Von Suttner and Bertha reunite, marry and suffer poverty working as teachers and writers in the Caucasus during the Prussian war. Reinforcing Bertha’s disbelief in her former militaristic traditions.
In his direction, Alexander Hauer capitalises on Maxi’s powerful presence to convey Wolf’s dialogue: “women were encouraged to embroider the flags to be flown during war” and should not be privy to the “blood filled empty torso’s” of dying soldiers.
Buxhofer’s role is interesting. During key notes in the dialogue; Maxi glances at Georg, leans on him and attempts to embrace his person. All the while he doesn’t react. He maintains his tranquillity via his musical peace.
Is he the silent yet musical, nonchalant comic relief? His reaction may be purposeful to make a connection to Bertha’s life, make harmony not war?
Bertha and Alfred Noble remain friends throughout their lives. He keeps his promise to Bertha to include a Peace prize. Maxi details Bertha’s fame exuberantly and her subsequent novels.
A highlight is Wolf’s interactive political scene, involving the audience. Maxi ethereally hands out essays of Bertha’s pacifist work, in realistic prop sheets printed in Viennese. A very affective scene. Appearing to be an almost rudimentary handing out of an agenda at a United Nations general assembly.
The one and only costume change is telling of a shift in Bertha’s mentality, adding a parallel to today’s woman. While she proceeding with the description of the novel, Maxi removes her skirt to fully reveal her pants and then the sleeves from the top part of her costume. She lay them neatly on the stage. Literally, laying down her arms.
Maxi Blaha gave a flawless portrayal of the life of Bertha Von Suttner. Conclusive statements of ” war is still war” mesmerise till blackout.