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11 October 2012

The Hanging of Jean Lee

Andrée Greenwell Image: Andrée Greenwell  
© J Manché

Andrée Greenwell writes about her music theatre work The Hanging of Jean Lee, just out on CD. Composed, directed and produced by Greenwell, The Hanging of Jean Lee has a libretto by Jordie Albiston and Abe Pogos, based on Albiston's verse biography of the same title. The CD is available through the composer's website (for full details, see also the AMC website).

In 2003 I was awarded the biennial NSW Women in Arts Fellowship. I proposed to develop a music theatre work, based upon Jordie Albiston's verse biography The Hanging of Jean Lee (Black Pepper 1998), which told the story of the last woman to be hanged in Australia, in 1951. This was in continuation of the hybrid music performance practice I had commenced in Dreaming Transportation: Voice Portraits of the First Women of White Settlement at Port Jackson, which was based upon Albiston's verse history Botany Bay Document. Similarly, I planned to bring together musicians and artists who do not ordinarily work together, to create a unique performative and musical experience. I also wished to develop my use of screen arts practices in a hybrid performance work that is composition-led, and this particular subject matter suggested to me the possibility of drawing upon conventions from the biographic documentary, and the rock-video clip.

The Hanging of Jean Lee CD cover

The story we were to tell was not well known: Jean Lee, along with lover Robert Clayton and criminal Norman Andrews, was convicted for participating in the brutal torture and murder of 73-year-old bookie William 'Pop' Kent. During police interrogation, Jean perversely confessed sole responsibility for the crime in an attempt to protect her lover. The court case and surrounding media coverage attracted immense controversy in post-war Melbourne, as, despite the brutality of the crime, there was social unease at the prospect of hanging a woman.

In terms of the score, my aim was to update the Brecht-Weill exploration of the underclass through the folk music vernacular. Thus, post-punk music genres lay the foundation to evoke a dark and criminal underworld and expose raw emotions, towards a form that I often describe as a 'retro-indie post-punk musical', a term coined with the help of Stephen Adams during a conversation following the first workshop, which was held at the ABC, in 2004. To evoke the life and times of Lee, I sought to collide and juxtapose diverse twentieth-century popular, improvisational and jazz song forms across this foundation, as 'theatres of music', yet always attempted to maintain a strong connection to the Australian vernacular at the core of Albiston's poems.

Following the premiere season at the Studio, Sydney Opera House, The Hanging of Jean Lee was recorded at the ABC Studios, Ultimo. This was for a variety of feature broadcasts, principally through the support of the ABC Radio National Music and Drama Units, with Anna Messariti as executive producer and Robyn Ravlich as associate producer. Most of the material on the CD comes from these recordings that were completed in 2008. Additionally, some material is included, which was recorded during the workshop of 2004, hence there are some double instrumentation credits.

Apart from the central role of Jean Lee, the cast share a variety of roles. These are outstanding performers who are diversely from theatre, rock and post-punk performance backgrounds: Pippa Grandison (Jean Lee), Amie McKenna (Young Jean), Hugo Race (Robert David Clayton/The Hangman), Mark Seymour (Morris Dias), Jeff Duff (William 'Pop' Kent), Josh Quong Tart (Norman Andrews) and Simon Maiden (Chorus). The musicians are some of Sydney's best, from indie-rock, post-punk and jazz scenes: Naomi Radom (violin), Phil Slater (trumpet), Paul Cutlan (fl/cl/sax), Michael Sheridan (electric guitar), Tom O'Halloran, Alexander Nettelbeck and myself on keyboards, Greg Royal and Cameron Undy on bass guitar and Jared Underwood on drumkit and percussion.

The limited edition CD contains a dynamic selection of songs, together with the full libretto by multi-award winning poet Jordie Albiston and dramatist Abe Pogos, in a 24-page booklet beautifully designed by Katerina Stratos. You can listen to the work in full, and order the CD online on my website.

AMC resources

Andrée Greenwell - AMC profile
The Hanging of Jean Lee (CD details on the AMC website)

Further links

Andrée Greenwell (www.andreegreenwell.com)
Andrée Greenwell: The Hanging of Jean Lee (CD page)
Video: 'You Stalker' from The Hanging of Jean Lee, The Studio, Sydney Opera House 2006 (Vimeo)
Video: 'Saturday Arvo' from The Hanging of Jean Lee. Performed live at the Studio, Sydney Opera House, 2006.
Andrée Greenwell's Vimeo channel
SoundCloud: The Villainelles by Andrée Greenwell

Award-winning composer Andrée Greenwell works diversely across mainstream and experimental platforms within the Australian performing arts, film and television.


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