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The light at the end of a long tunnel

Keith Gallasch on Sydney Performance


Version 1.0, From a Distance Version 1.0, From a Distance
photo Heidrun Löhr
It was one of those strange times, a couple of months in which much of the work in contemporary performance and theatre I saw didn't hit the mark. There were exceptions, even if with reservations. At the youth end of the spectrum there was PACT's Toxic Dreams, a remarkable music theatre venture, and at the other the State Theatre Company of South Australia production of the emotionally and ethically rivetting Who is Sylvia? The Goat, written only a few years ago by Edward Albee, now in his 80th year. But it was dance theatre that excelled, just as we went to print, in the form of Tania Liedtke's 12th Floor, immaculately made and bravely performed, if to a somewhat dodgy scenario. Like Kate Champion at her best with Force Majeure, or Chunky Move in Tense Dave, this was exhilarating and inspirational theatre (to be reviewed in RT 74).

Toxic Dreams

There has been a toxic airborne event, Seven people have taken refuge in makeshift safe house. Time for a miracle. Or a song.

PACT's Toxic Dreams, is a nightmare vision—on the promotional postcard and program not even the cockroach (the most likely survivor of nuclear war) has survived this disaster. However, this unrelentingly grim and apparently helpless vision is relieved by a superbly effective exploration of the potential of new music in performance.

This is a world of waste (swathes of unread newspaper) against a dark mural of tired oil derricks and drab pelicans. A jug of water and 7 cups sit centre stage. Each cup is filled and drunk in the course of the performance, each act of drinking possibly a death sentence. Like the paper, the performers are littered across the space, coming into focus primarily in solos or now and then in duets of assault or temporary compassion—cradling, protecting, feeding. Occasionally they are as one, but mostly they signal helplessly, audiences to each other's passions and fears.

After visiting a sewage plant, a waste disposal site, Lucas Heights and going on a bush trip, 7 writers worked with dramaturg Bryoni Trezise on texts about toxification and intoxication to be used collectively as a libretto for a PACT performance. As often, libretti on the page rarely impress, but in performance they here enjoy the alchemy of Margery Smith's powerful musical direction for 2 saxophones, electronics and piano. The texts are sung or spoken and, when spoken, the performers' voices are liberated, extending their range, shifting registers, exploiting acoustic and microphonic spaces. Although articulation and verbal clarity weren't always sufficiently sharp, intention, shape and strength were-a big vocal step forward for young performers in demanding work.

As ever, PACT's directors get the most out of their young performers, perhaps here more than ever, Georgie Read excelling in a vertiginous rhythmic flailing high above us and, eslewhere, displaying potent vocal qualities. While individual writing, the matching of words with music and the strategies for enacting them were all admirable, the overall scenario however sometimes lacked shape and intelligibility and the PACT performance vocabulary felt more than familiar. These not inconsiderable complaints aside, Toxic Dreams was a bracing music theatre experience.

The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?

Edward Albee provides a more conventional theatre experience, but one nonetheless full of surprises, not just in content but in construction. That most favored of American stage formulae, the unravelling of a secret is again centrestage. However, the title gives up the secret to allow Albee to focus on just how his characters will reveal and explore it. He deftly moves from social comedy into the kind of verbal viciousness we associate with Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, on into dizzying ethical debate and, finally, a ritualistic moment straight out of Greek tragedy (“goat play”). While the set design and spatial deployment of the actors appear less than accommodating, the performances are superb, director Marion Potts drawing out of Victoria Longley and Bill Zappa some of their very best work. Zappa lives his persona of an essentially quiet, forgetful and ruminative middle-aged man, caught out, struggling to understand himself and the violence of other people's responses to what was for him a transcendant experience before morality kicked in.

From a Distance

Version 1.0 have created an impressive track record with Second Last Supper, CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) and Wages of Spin. Their discursive but incisive house style, adroit play with forms and media, and a strong sense of ensemble sustain their political drive. From a Distance, however, is not in the race. Inspired by the bad behaviour of an Australian Olympics rower who let her team down and they in turn her, the show begins strongly with a walking dance of meticulous uniformity in which the members collectively stare one of their number down until no-one is left. At the end of From a Distance, the rowing team and management line up to spin their collective taking on the blame for turning on each other and behaving in ways un-Australian, but all still jockeying to stay centrestage. It's become just too easy to say sorry. It's in these scenes that you feel close to the material which inspired From a Distance, but in between, for the bulk of the work, you're somewhere altogether different, at an Australian family barbecue.

Version 1.0 opt for metaphor instead of going at their subject matter, as they usually do, head on. This image of bad domestic behaviour peppered with prejudice, infidelity, petty squabbles and personal quirks, and fuelled by wedge politics, goes nowhere fast, it remains a conceit—a half hour with Kath and Kim's quickfire satire seems more revelatory. There are brief bursts of insight and some fine, wacky moments from the Fondue Set, like Emma Saunder's frantic inability to play the game, but it's not clear what this family adds up to. Nikki Heywood as mum, ironing fatigues and sports jumpers, drolly worries at her son's primary school experience of being labelled un-Australian by a teacher, and seems momentarily to belong to an altogether different, more politically aware family than this obtuse bunch. If there were too many signs of cut and paste and an inconsistent and under-developed vision (and an unusually weak link for Version 1.0 between live performance and video imagery), we mustn't get depressed, the occasional defeat will doubtless be corrected on the learning curve. The excellent Wages of Spin is soon go on tour.

Blowback

I wasn't any happier at Not Yet Its' Difficult's Blowback which relentlessly hammered home its dark vision of a US-occupied Australia. As in Version 1.0's Wages of Spin, the setting is a television studio, though less totally so because it shares the stage with a torture chamber and a war room. Framing these is an Australian TV soap opera suspected of delivering coded signals for terrorist resistance. The torture oscillates between erotic play and rape, and the US officer, Jenny Ripper, is an unfunny relative of the Ripper in Dr Strangelove. Although played with great commitment and realised with deft cinematic shifts of focus, the code-in-the-soap plot was ungainly and Blowback's agitprop stance and pacing allowed little room for reflection on our complicity in the occupation. Again, the choice of subject matter is spot on, but its handling uncertain. Not everything in the same company's K appealed to me, but for clarity of intent, nuance, technological engagement and potency of image it far surpassed this new work. John Bailey's review of the Melbourne season of Blowback appeared in RealTime 65 (page 35).

Silence

Tanya Denny's account of Suzan Lori Parke's In the Blood was one of the best shows of 2005. However, her version of Moira Buffini's Silence did not impress. This much praised British play is an historical comedy, played here as farce, but not convincingly written as one. The acting was exhaustingly big with only Rose Grayson as the girl raised as a boy to become a lord of the manor playing, for the most part, with the requisite subtlety.

The Hanging Man

Also historical, also from the UK, Theatre Improbable's The Hanging Man. This fable is about an architect who hangs himself when he senses his new cathedral a failure, but lives, ghost-like, until he learns to love life and Death then lets him die. The best thing about The Hanging Man is the theatre as machine. The clever unit set is packed with devices that allow for flight, entrances through the floor and for swift changes of scene. But the inadequate metaphysics, the sluggish pacing, a text-driven revelation, and a final superfluity of effects, weakened the theatre magic and the easy ensemble playing.

Luke Davies' Stag

Sydney Theatre Company's PUSH program of plays-in-development is attracting big audiences over its 3-night presentations in the age of participation. All kinds of Q&As, festivals of ideas and other forums are proliferating, developing in parallel with new communications technologies. There's even a user-pays aspect: $15 a ticket to see a work-very-much-in-progress. Luke Davies' Stag, about a group of sports day dissidents hiding out, smoking dope and reflecting on the meaning of life at the far end of the school yard, is wonderfully discursive, capturing the power plays and embarrassed confessions of of adolescence. Davies' language is, as ever, a joy, here focusing on how verbal images grab young minds and enter into circulation. The business of 2 school teachers having an affair is as yet unweildly, there's a loaded theme pertaining to absent fathers and the resolution in a set of monologues describing what happened to each of the characters reads like author notes. Otherwise Stag looks promising.

Request Program

From the same wing of the STC, Wharf2LOUD, came Brendan Cowell's production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's Request Program (1971). Without ever speaking, the lone subject of the play goes about her quiet life, meticulously ordering every object and moment in it until her resolve finally weakens and alcohol and medication beckon. Cowell admirably has Suzi Dougherty maintain her distance from us, she remains a stranger (unlike, say, the confessionalists of Big Brother), but he cannot resist overplaying and parodying the radio request program for lovers and the lonely she listens to, but never visibly reacts to. The sheer strangeness of witnessing such empty privacy is consequently, if not irredeemably (once the radio is turned off), undercut.


Toxic Dreams, director Regina Heilmann, assistant director Alice Osborne, performers Ashley Dyer, Jane Grimley, Lulu Hogg, Gideon Payten Griffiths, Georgie Read, George Root, Hila Sukkar; writers Corin Adams, Christian Brimo, Thao Cao, Lynda Ng, Sarah-Jane Norman, Jon Seltin, Hila Sukkar, saxophones Nathan Henshaw, Andrew Smith, digital musician Andrew Smith; dramaturgy Bryoni Trezise, musical direction Margery Smith, design Claire Sandford, lighting Clytie Smith; PACT Theatre, Sydney, April 6-16

Who is Sylvia? The Goat, writer Edward Albee, , director Marion Potts, performers Bill Zappa, Victoria Longley, Pip Miller, Cameron Goodall, designer Gaelle Mellis, lighting Geoff Cobham, Company B Belvoir, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Seymour Centre, Sydney, April 1-May 7

Version 1.0, From a Distance, devisors, performers Nikki Heywood, Stephen Klinder, Jane McKernan, Jane Phegan, Elizabeth ryan, Christopher Ryan, Emma Saunders, director, producer David Williams, consultant director Yana Taylor, dramaturgy Paul Dwyer, lighting, video Simon Wise, sound Jason Sweeney; co-producer Performance Space, Sydney, April 5-16

Not Yet It's Difficult, Blowback, writer, director David Pledger, performers Todd MacDonald, Roslyn Oades, Rachel Gordon, Benji McNair, Vivienne Walshe, Luciano Martucci, Tom Considine, Natalie Cursio, Joshua Hewitt, dramaturg Peter Eckersall, lighting Paul Jackson, design David Pledger, costumes Danielle Harrison, sound Lydia Teychenne, film editor Mark Atkin, animation Louise Taube; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, April 26-29

Moira Buffini, Silence, director Tanya Denny, producer Sam Hawker, performers Sophie Cleary, Rose Grayson, Nicholas Papademetriou, Paul Tassone, Andrea Wallis, Johann Walraven, design Jo Lewis, lighting Stephen Hawker, sound Jeremy Silver; B Sharp, Seymour Centre, Sydney, May 5-28

Improbable, The Hanging Man, directed, designed & scripted by Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson, Julian Crouch; Adventures in the Dark, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House, May 4-June 3

Push#1, Stag, writer Luke Davies, director Lee Lewis, Wharf2Loud, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf2, April 20-22

Franz Xaver Kroetz, Request Program, director Brendan Cowell, performer Suzi Dougherty, designer Genevieve Dugard, lighting Stephen Hawker, sound/composition Basil Hogios, radio show written and performed by Brendan Cowell; Wharf2, Sydney Theatre Company, May 25-June 10

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 16

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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