Arts / When the might of war meets family secrets

Writer Nigel Featherstone, front, with composer James Humberstone. Photo Ryley Gillen

IN a four-cornered triumph for Canberra, Goulburn, Sydney and Melbourne talent, The Street Theatre and Goulburn Regional Conservatorium are about to stage an original song-cycle that tackles the devastating psychological effects war can have on young men.

“The Weight of Light” was commissioned by the conservatorium’s director Paul Scott-Williams from Goulburn-based, former Canberra writer Nigel Featherstone and Sydney composer James Humberstone.

Now, in a production by The Street’s Caroline Stacey, it premieres in Canberra and Goulburn, with plans to tour towns such as Yass, Crookwell and Braidwood.

Former head of voice at the ANU School of Music Alan Hicks will play piano, while the central character, a young Australian soldier home from a tour in Afghanistan, is to be played by Melbourne baritone Michael Lampard.

Formerly the chief spokesperson for Canberra’s Childers Group, Featherstone now prefers to hide from public view to write. His war novel, “Bodies of Men”, will be published next year and he is also contracted to run the national Hardcopy program at the ACT Writers Centre

“Paul Scott-Williams approached me around the end of 2013, and said he had an idea to commission a song cycle,” Featherstone says.

“He wanted a work related to Goulburn and the Southern Tablelands region – not the Southern Highlands.

“Paul’s idea was to make a contribution to contemporary art song that could also tour around the conservatorium’s catchment area, so we decided to explore this in a composition workshop.”

Initially Featherstone defined, as he’d never written a libretto before, but Scott-Williams convinced him to reconsider and, partly because he now lives in Goulburn and has “a lifelong obsession with music”, he agreed.

He and Humberstone, who lectures at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, had dinner and clicked immediately in terms of their politics and concerns.

In researching his coming novel, Featherstone had found Goulburn to be full of diversity, with wealth, youth unemployment, the jail and rural communities on the periphery.

“So different from the cities…I thought it would be interesting to create a work around this,” he says.

Despite his eclectic musical tastes – from Radiohead and Edith Piaf to Arvo Pärt art song conventions were new to him and, primarily a prose writer, he was a bit daunted.

But he remembered what his friend and mentor, writer John Clanchy, had once told him: “If you’re feeling uncomfortable about it you should do it.”

He started writing the text at the beginning of 2014 with three initial concepts which were narrowed to one. He then consulted a psychologist who works with Soldier On.

Lampard’s deep baritone seemed perfect for “The Soldier”, whom Featherstone describes as “quite blokey, from a rural background, epitomising that Aussie belief in nation and family… you get that sense of maleness and masculinity in the baritone register,” undercut by the fact that the work criticises military and masculine stereotypes.

“The Weight of Light” refers in part to the Southern Tablelands.

“We have 45C° summers and -10°C winters, but even then the light is beautiful… a beautiful light, but with a heaviness to it. Also there’s an element of grey area implied in the story.”

Briefly, a soldier who has been serving in Afghanistan returns home to his family, but they have a secret and he has a secret. Different expressions of masculinity and gender emerge in a kind of road trip starting at an army base in Sydney, going down the Hume, through towns and eventually to Crookwell.

“To me, ‘The Weight of Light’ is a family drama where the might of war meets the force of family secrets.”

“The Weight of Light”, Street Theatre, March 3-4 and Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, March 10. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223; for Goulburn, visit trybooking.com

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