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Belinda Raisin, Dead Cargo Belinda Raisin, Dead Cargo
photo Leesa Connelly
METRO ARTS HAS ALWAYS BEEN A HOME FOR INDEPENDENT PRODUCTIONS IN BRISBANE, BUT SINCE LIZ BURCHAM’S APPOINTMENT AS CEO IN 2006, THIS POSITION HAS BEEN BOTH CEMENTED AND STRENGTHENED. BY PROVIDING FUNDING SUPPORT AND PAYING ACTORS DURING REHEARSALS (AFTER WHICH IT’S INTO COOPERATIVE SHARING ARRANGEMENTS), BURCHAM HAS TRANSFORMED METRO INDEPENDENTS INTO A VITAL AND COHESIVE PART OF THE CITY'S PERFORMANCE SCENE. BUT WHY KEEP THE FAITH?

In an interview with Katherine Lyall-Watson, Brisbane icon Eugene Gilfedder lays out a manifesto: “Independent theatre chooses YOU. It says, come to me, do as I say, work many long hours without wages, get wound up with nerves—you’ll love it. Independent theatre is the HEART and I've been honoured to have had so many wonderful people who have been likewise CHOSEN.”

dead cargo

But as an audience you don't necessarily have to love it. In fact, the first production for the year, Dead Cargo by Tim Dashwood and Nigel Poulton, aroused emotions in me ranging from boredom, disappointment, utter confusion, outrage, repulsion and homicidal feelings towards the protagonists that they also apparently harboured for each other, accompanied by a savage glee that I was experiencing all these emotions. This had the taste of the real thing. It also proved an extraordinary introduction to Meyerhold’s Biomechanics, which he developed in mid-20th century Russia, and which Nigel Poulton now teaches in 21st century Brisbane.

There was one simple action. Three clowns performed riffs on that good old standard prop, the suitcase, fighting for possession until the most recently arrived (and most innocent?) spontaneously gives it away because someone “needs it more,” and then gets himself killed into the bargain for breaking the rules of this closed society. The most absurdly inspired piece of clowning took place at this point as Deb Sampson put one foot in a bucket of water in order to avoid leaving her watery domain to commit the murder. Otherwise, time (itself something of an obsession) was spent in non-stop demonstrations of an infinite capacity to talk past each other.

In my opinion, this aspect of the work was an unintentional red herring. Dashwood and Poulton might have been better off learning from the new existential comedy of British playwright Will Eno rather than flagging the Absurdist theatre of the mid-20th century. In any event, promoting Dead Cargo as contemporary absurd theatre was a bit of a misnomer. Surely—and on the evidence of this production—Meyerhold was closer in time to Expressionism and to the concepts of Artaud's Theatre of Cruelty. Certainly I was most moved by the stylised recounting by each of the performers at different times of a refugee's flashback childhood memory involving soldiers “with angry eyes,” a seeming massacre, and their subsequent lonely fall into an abyss of cultural displacement. This was passionately conveyed by the actors and coupled with Jason Glenwright’s lighting and Phil Slade’s sound design, Dead Cargo revealed itself in the end to be a very thoughtful and powerful production.

Eugene Gilfedder and Finn Gilfedder-Cooney, Empire Burning Eugene Gilfedder and Finn Gilfedder-Cooney, Empire Burning
photo Stephen Henry
empire burning

Eugene Gilfedder's The Fiveways was the bright gem in the 2009 Brisbane Festival (RT87). His latest offering, Empire Burning, has even more profound scope as political allegory with multiple overtones conveyed in the heightened language of a blank verse that was marvellously contemporary and played seamlessly to its audience. I periodically found myself closing my eyes just to relish the words. This was also a tribute to a cast consisting of some of Brisbane's finest actors who took on the text as their own. This was a theatre of ideas that was as visceral as it was cerebral, requiring us to mentally jump with the alacrity of Gilfedder's own agile facility to gather worlds.

The piece originated in 2005 when Gilfedder was reading about the influence of the Roman playwright Seneca on the age of Shakespeare (think the graphic violence of Timon of Athens) and at the same time brooding about the so-called war on terror abroad (think Abu Ghraib) as well as attacks on democracy and civil liberties at home. Seneca was also a renowned philosopher and tutor to the young Nero who was named emperor in 54AD and, as legend has it, fiddled while Rome burned. This all became enmeshed in an intense poetic fantasy about an ur-empire in decline rather than keeping to strict historical parallels. This is clear when “we none of us know / What people these are that come through the flames.” The captured terrorist (Dan Crestani) is inarticulate, cannot speak the language...there is nothing to designate him as other than Other. These self-immolating strangers hint at a mysterious interpenetration of the human and supernatural worlds, a mood further enhanced by Geoff Squires’ lighting and Freddy Komp's projections. Gilfedder recreates something of the feel of classical tragedy with these mysterious epiphanies and symbolic revelations of the divine, however strongly parodic their final delivery in this piece.

There was much to praise in the performances: Gilfedder portraying Seneca as a warm and decent man (especially evident in early scenes with his son), a humanist and democrat increasingly baffled and ultimately overwhelmed by the madness of his times; the cold choice of madness itself a valid response to the times embraced with beautifully modulated nonchalance and fierce humour by Finn Gilfedder-Cooney as Nero; the saturnine ease and contemporary chutzpah of all the conspiring senators; and the power-hungry, domineering Agrippina, mother of Nero, played with flamboyant abandon by Nikki-J Price. This was a work of gripping energy and relevance that has the legs for a lot more miles.


Dead Cargo, director Nigel Poulton, writers Tim Dashwood, Nigel Poulton, performers Nigel Poulton, Tim Dashwood, Belinda Raisin, Deb Sampson, sound design Phil Slade, lighting Jason Glenwright, Metro Arts, Brisbane March 9-26; Empire Burning, writer, director Eugene Gilfedder, performers Finn Gilfedder-Cooney, Eugene Gilfedder, Nikki-J Price, Dan Crestani, Damien Cassidy, Steven Tandy, Sasha Janowicz, Michael Futcher, sound design John Rodgers, Ken Eadie, lighting Geoff Squires, costumes Jess Staunton, visuals/projections Freddy Kemp; Metro Arts, Brisbane May 13

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. web

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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