In the early 1980s, at his pop peak, David Bowie bought an apartment in Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, and filmed his still-provocative video to Let’s Dance in Carinda, New South Wales – enough of a reason for Australians to rechristen him “Our Dave”.
Now, in an Australian first, Bowie’s final creative effort has arrived at Melbourne’s Playhouse Theatre: the elegiac art-musical Lazarus.
Lazarus originally premiered in his other home bases, New York City and London. In New York it debuted prior to his unexpected death in January 2016 – and three years later, some will surely be treating their ticket to Lazarus as a way to pay respects to the legend.
It wouldn’t be entirely inappropriate. Much like Bowie’s last album Blackstar, which was widely read as a “farewell” from a terminally ill man, Lazarus seeks to articulate and animate the experience of bodily expiry. But, being a David Bowie concoction, it always zigs when you think it’ll zag.
The plot is nearly impossible to describe; a sequel, of sorts, to the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which director Nicolas Roeg adapted in the 1970s with Bowie in the lead.
Here, Chris Ryan takes on Bowie’s role from the original movie: Newton, an apparently immortal extraterrestrial who has given up on his efforts to escape Earth, waiting, hopelessly, to die in his apartment. In what is either a rescue mission from space, evidence of creeping insanity, or, y’know, something really out of left-field, a mysterious, pallid girl (Emily Milledge) appears to him. Meanwhile, Newtown’s housekeeper, Elly (Phoebe Panaretos) undergoes a crisis of identity — and perhaps a mild case of spiritual possession — while his mirror identity Valentine (iOTA, AKA Mad Max: Fury Road’s Doof Warrior) goes on a murder spree. Oh, and they sing Bowie songs all the time.
If you come out feeling light-headed, you’re not alone. Playwright Enda Walsh, who wrote the book for Lazarus with Bowie, made a name for himself with the theatre piece Disco Pigs, which came with its own invented language. This was never gonna be Mamma Mia.
Beard-stroking experimental theatre and jukebox musicals are strange bedfellows, even for Bowie, the strangest of all bedfellows. If only the oblique nature of the narrative inspired a cathartic response. Instead, the Bowie-brand surrealism falls flat, while the mildly cheesy revue of his deathless music delivers the emotional punch.
It’s all technically impressive, as you’d expect. In director Michael Kantor’s production, a wall of video screens bisects the stage. It reflects the actors, and creates the illusion of doubles behind it too, allowing the performers to appear both within and without, befitting the tale. An elevated live band sits behind, in full view of the auditorium. They give immediacy to classic singles, as well as deeper cuts and a few newies written by Bowie specifically for this story.
The performers are uniformly admirable — Panaretos in particular — each replicating Bowie’s exerted gasp-squeak on the howled high notes. And Anna Cordingley’s costumes delight, with iOTA’s Valentine initially dressed as the Thin White Duke before emerging in the clown couture from the Scary Monsters period.
Unfortunately, not every part of Lazarus made it down under, with the essential Berlin-era Sound and Vision inexplicably left off the playlist, and one character – who admittedly appeared only in video segments – erased entirely.
The pleasure of Lazarus – and also what ultimately becomes its near-fatal flaw – is discovering which Bowie tunes can be turned into plug-and-play musical theatre numbers. Changes? All the Young Dudes? Absolute Beginners? Absolutely. Heroes, sapped of irony with a newly melodramatic rendition, or an off-key take on The Man Who Sold the World? Not so much.
The most poignant moment comes after the encore, when we are directed to applaud an image of the show’s late creator, projected onto the wall of screens. Lazarus, so briefly, brings Bowie back from the dead. Just for one play.
• Lazarus runs until 9 June at the Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre Melbourne