Video and opera project exploring virtue among prisoners.

‘Ah, that I am Judith, am coming from him,
out of the tent out of the bed, out-trickling his head,
three-times drunken blood.’
—Rainer Maria Rilke

This, a world premiere performance, is a soaring, romantic and full-throttle new opera, inspired by the story of Judith: a biblical heroine and murderous widow who seduced an invading army general and (allegedly) chopped off his head. Nine disembodied male voices sound in the dark: prisoners from Warsaw’s Białołęka Prison contemplating Judith’s tale; and a chorus with skin in the game when it comes to matters of violence and virtue.

Joining these absent men on stage is renowned soprano Jacqueline Dark in the role of Judith, and mystery guests who lend the story a Tassie take on Judith’s crime: courage or madness?

The Theatre Royal’s trad stage is hijacked with multi-channel video shot at great peril in Poland, from mountain ranges to bombed-out warehouses, as music for church organ, synthesisers and drums fill the theatre. With a libretto by Rilke, performed in German, Polish and Tasmanian.

Judith’s Return is six years in the making, including the lengthy process of gaining access to Białołęka—one of Eastern Europe’s largest detention centres. Here in Hobart, the opera will also stream live to an audience inside the Risdon Prison walls (we hope).

JUDITH’S RETURN, is an experimental opera and video work created and performed by artists and people convicted of crime. It explores the virtue of courage and takes it’s title from the Raine Maria Rilke poem of the same name. The project combines the voices of current and former prisoners from Australia and Poland with multi channel video and music for church organ, synthesizer, soprano and drums. The accompanying operatic was composed by Brennan and Polish collaborator Szczepan Pospieszalski and it’s  libretto is taken from Rilke’s poem.

Inspired by the imaginative world of incarcerated people, Judith’s Return reclaims virtue in a contemporary setting. It takes as it’s muse the Old Testament biblical heroine and murderess Judith, and explores the personal and ethical issues surrounding an act of courage. Current and former prisoners are cast as philosophers who dissect the story, at times this echoing their own experiences, regrets and hopes.  The result is an emotionally devastating performance that shatters judgments around convicted peoples capacity to live morally and ultimately asks viewers to consider the limits of liberty . 

The work has been created in partnership with Białołęka Prison, Warsaw, one of Europes largest detention centres. Working with a Polish translator and sound recordist, Brennan ran a six week program in the prisons gymnasium with nine men currently imprisoned at Białołęka. The prisoners were invited to contribute as experts and discuss their own ideas on crime and virtue. From these unrehearsed conversations that drew on personal experiences, Polish history and the moral codes of the street, a moving and philosophical narrative voice emerges.

Shot on location in some of Poland’s most mysterious corners. From the highest mountain peak to the grimiest bombed out warehouses of the holy city of Czestochowa, through drug-fuelled parties and empty castles, the video flies with a third-eye view through the iconic and hidden landscapes of the prisoners’ country. The visions and voices of participating prisoners are placed in the ‘world outside’ the walls of the prison. These intimate ethnographic records inhabit the spaces the prisoners have left behind once again in defiance and yearning.

JUDITH’S RETURN is the first in a series titled THE VIRTUES. These seven large scale collaborative works are created in collaboration with prisons around the world, between 2013 and 2053. Each work is produced for audiences inside and outside the prison walls. 

The completed work will be performed in 2020 for audience inside and outside prison, including a special presentation for inmates at Białołęka Prison, Warsaw.