A few years ago, I wandered into the then-new Captains of Industry cafe, ordered a coffee and flicked idly through a book that was on the end of my table. It was filled with black and white photos of criminals, victims, witnesses and crime scenes of Sydney in the early part of the 20th Century.
Some of the pictures were gruesome, but mostly they stood in stark testament to the human condition, in all its grief, grime, corruption and sorrow. It engendered an odd sense of compassion, too, for all those lives tarnished or lost. The next time I went to the cafe, though, the book was gone.
It was only when I saw City of Shadows – A Song Cycle of Murder, Misfortune and Forensics advertised for the Melbourne Fringe Festival that I realised that the show was based on the very same book. Peter Doyle’s book, City of Shadows, was created to accompany the Sydney Justice & Police Museum’s 2005 exhibition of the same name.
The exhibition and book together inspired musician Rachel Dease to write a ten song cycle, and this Fringe show is the result. Accompanied by a string quartet, Dease’s rich and soulful voice weaves melancholy tapestries while images are projected onto the back wall. It makes for a curiously moving experience.
Dease’s songs are elegant lamentations to the human condition, but the laments aren’t wholly plaintive. There’s beauty and hope in the wash and swell of song, too. There are discordant, jarring passages. There’s compassion as well.
Seeing the images without explanatory text means that we don’t know the stories of the faces we see. Expressions in turn anxious, sly, surly, fearful, blank and even a little demented leave few clues about whether those men and women are victims, perpetrators or witnesses. In crime scenes, the dead are at ungainly angles, but are they suicides, murders or deaths by misadventure?
The lack of contextual clues combines with the beauty of the music to take away any sense of exploitation of the images. Instead of judging the individuals, Dease and her songs ask us to simply note that being human can be a tragic and complex affair, and some choices and some fates lead to this: a snapshot from one dark moment of a life (or the end of it).
City of Shadows is on until 5 October at the Malthouse Theatre. If the combination of beautiful music, sordid crime and compassion for the human condition appeals, you should check it out.
- Book City of Shadows at the Melbourne Fringe
- Read about the restaged City of Shadows exhbition in Sydney, running till December 2013
- Read the Museum’s City of Shadows blog
- Buy the book, City of Shadows, by Peter Doyle
- Find out more about Rachael Dease