HOPELESSNESS @ The Playhouse, 17 Aug

Review by Katie Hawthorne | 22 Aug 2016

There's a deep rumbling shaking the Playhouse's listed foundations. The house lights fade, and a forest of dry ice clears to reveal a cinema-sized screen dominating the stage. The rumbling drones louder still, and the screen flickers – Naomi Campbell, stood in some sort of concrete bunker and minimally, militarily dressed, is dancing. She shimmys towards a zooming camera lens, and never once breaks eye contact. She dances for a further fifteen minutes, soundtracked only by gravelled, droning, rhythmless synth. Visually stunning, but far from the most user-friendly of beginnings. The International Festival audience fidgets. A man checks his watch, gets up and leaves. 

Two torch beams break the darkness as Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never are guided to their stations, flanking the enormous set-up. It's strange to see both heavyweight producers relegated to the background, and as they launch into the beats behind Anohni's title track the vocalist is still nowhere to be seen. Naomi fades out and a new female face fills the screen, bare-shouldered and confrontational, lip-synching to the song's story of greed and waste. Anohni's unmistakable voice floats out disembodied from somewhere deep within the theatre's mechanics.

As the track dies, the former ringleader of Antony & The Johnsons finally emerges to warm, welcoming whoops, and she delivers single Four Degrees with bone-shaking gravitas. The set journeys through her album Hopelessness in full, each song accompanied by a new, female cameo on the screen. The record's uncompromising account of self-inflicted human violence and the wanton destruction of our planet is a difficult listen, but stands tall as pure, powerful, important songwriting. 

It's rare to see three performers – each reknowned as innovators of their respective genres – come together for such a singular project. And although staggering in delivery, the repetitive, static staging makes it slightly easy for the brain to wander; when Anohni does begin to engage with the audience, whipping up a response with violent arm movements, the show feels less like a lecture and more like an act of protest.

Violent Men and Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth elict full-body shivers, and after the show closes on a gut-punching Drone Bomb Me backed up by a heartbreaking monologue from an elderly Aborignal woman, the audience stands united in roof-raising applause.

Still, post-show rumours fly that the concert was 'too' technically perfect, that it was simply a playback of the record. We'll never know... but casting such aspersions feels like sacrilege after an hour of uncompromised, fearless conversation.