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Surreal is a catch-all phrase these days, from sporting winners to dazed and confused ministers of the crown. It means absolutely nothing.

Beyond real and surreal sits Laurie Anderson. Still. And that can mean a lot, as this review from her mid 2010 at the Sydney Opera House, shows.



Drama Theatre, June 1

Has it ever occurred to you what effect there may have been on architecture if Christ had been stoned rather than crucified? It's occurred to Laurie Anderson.

The oddest things occur to Laurie Anderson. Or maybe it is just that when she picks them up and turns them this way and that, most ordinary things start to look different.

Different enough that when she starts spinning a yarn, a secular parable about change or harmony or "the slow-motion fury" of domestic arguments, everything takes on a different hue, like the heavily treated electric violin she plays at the beginning and end of the night.

In the semi-disconnected series of narratives which make up this retrospective compilation, Anderson plays storyteller and humourist principally rather than building a solid philosophical picture, as she has done in full shows.

She delivers her droll lines with a smile playing at the corners of her mouth or a sly look up at the audience as if to say, do you believe me? Do you?

After all, if there is a through-line in Transitory Life it is the permeability, the unreliability of memory and self-mythology.

“You set your story and you hang on to it,” she says at one point. “But every time you tell it you forget more and more.”

Late in the show, she moves from the keyboard and violin base to a nearby big comfy chair in which she, small and pixie-featured, sits like a coddled child who has just crawled into her grandfather's favourite spot to tell the family a story.

But in that musical speaking voice of hers, with its unexpected inflections (and, in some sections, electronically deepened to mimic a male voice), minor profundities sporadically drop into the entertainment like ripe fruit blown off the branch by gusts of wind.

A story about an Amish family she meets where a troublesome child is cajoled into kissing his grandmother ends as a lesson about how we learn to "kiss without affection. Without meaning. As a form of payment."

An imagined adult life for a sozzled Hansel and Gretel becomes a question of believing in your own legend. A hospital rings with the real and remembered cries of dying children.

These things occur to Laurie Anderson.

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