Adelaide Festival 2022: Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan

Who: Composed by Joseph Twist with a libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas, featuring the Adelaide Chamber Singers.

What: Operatic oratorio

When: Last show tonight, 8 March at 7pm

Where: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre. More details on the Adelaide Festival website.

Mark Oates  as Duncan/Dunstan and Mason Kelly, dancer.

If you’re like me, and you’re an Adelaidean who went to the University of Adelaide, you’ve likely heard of Dr Duncan and have a basic grasp on the story of his death and its significance. If you’re even more like me, you’ve been curious to learn more, but have never really gotten around to it. Thankfully for us, in the gripping and multidimensional oratorio, Watershed, all the gruesome, disheartening and hopeful details of this one-time Adelaide Law School lecturer’s gay hate-filled murder are meticulously yet movingly laid out.

The first thing that intrigued me about this production, a joint commission between Adelaide Festival, Feast Festival and State Opera South Australia, was its format, and how that might lend itself to the storytelling. I was concerned that an opera-like piece would be challenging to follow and that I’d have to be versed in the details of the Duncan case and its aftermath to fully appreciate the show. However, this concern swiftly dissipated as the production design, including surtitles, projected photographs and newspaper clippings elegantly ensure the audience is able to follow every word, detail and character presented. Understanding and clarity are therefore aptly placed at the core of Watershed. This theme is further underscored by the fact that an oratorio is traditionally a musical composition on a sacred subject, based on scripture. The libretto frequently alludes to this tradition, which is fitting given both Dr Duncan’s religiosity and the reverence with which many regard the man and his legacy today.

Several other thoughtful elements contribute to haunting, sensitive nature of this piece of performance. The libretto by Valentine and Tsiolkas involves a sublime balance of vulgar colloquialisms, erudite musings, and raw archival material taken from inquest transcripts, press clippings, private correspondence and the like. Mason Kelly’s interpretive dance throughout the performance brings a much-needed rawness and physicality to Watershed, reminding us of the intense violence, tragedy and emotion of Duncan’s murder. The surprisingly prominent, poetic role played by the Torrens in the production helps to contextualise the story. The river becomes a solemn medium for darkness and mystery, but also for cleansing and spirituality. Finally, the thoroughness of the research that went into Watershed is apparent in its scrupulous presentation of the criminal investigation and legal saga following the murder. The testimonials of those whose lives have been touched and improved thanks to Dr Duncan provides a stirring finish that connects the story directly to the present day.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan is intensely local, yet universal. I left the show with a greater sense of place and a newfound pride in my state and my city. This is a city whose citizens have, when faced with failures of the system and seemingly hopeless tragedies, triumphantly led the world to change and so created a freer and safer existence for countless individuals. This city is ours.

4 stars out of 5

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s