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melbourne fringe festival


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jana perkovic: 2009 melbourne fringe festival performances


Paula Lay, Reverb (1) Paula Lay, Reverb (1)
photo Mila Robles
MELBOURNE FRINGE FESTIVAL IS ALWAYS, INEVITABLY, A LESSON IN READING SPACE. FOR THREE MANIC WEEKS WE LIVE IN A CITY TURNED INSIDE OUT. THE PERIPHERAL NORTH MELBOURNE BECOMES THE NEW ARTS PRECINCT; MARGINAL TRAIN LINES REGAIN CURRENCY; ELEVATORS BECOME PERFORMANCE VENUES. WE TRAWL THROUGH LESSER-KNOWN SUBURBS, BACK ALLEYS, FLOORS-OTHER-THAN-GROUND, FOLLOWING DIRECTIONS CHALKED ON CONCRETE, OR ALWAYS TOO SUCCINTLY REPORTED IN THE FESTIVAL PROGRAM. IF THE SPOTLIGHT OF MAINSTREAM ART FESTIVALS RESTS FIRMLY ON THE CITY CENTRE AND CENTRESTAGE, FRINGE COUNTERACTS WITH A ROBUST FOCUS ON THE MARGINS.

The most interesting works this year were all trying to make us re-read space: re-imagining the city on the one hand, theatrical space on the other. The former were collected in the Mapping Room, presented by Head Quarters, a freshly inaugurated independent artspace, an increasingly rarity in the inner city ravaged by gentrification. Among them, people’s walking tours (of anything from graffiti to op-shops) intersected with site-specific performances. Martin del Amo and Brooke Stamp’s Reverb (1) was a clickety, airy dance, one part oneiric pantomime, one part durational performance, travelling between Bendigo and a small park off Chapel Street. I witnessed the very last performance, the afternoon after the Fringe closing party—its audience a wobbly bunch of black-clad urbanites, colonising a vague suburban space at a vague Sunday time. It was liminal in every sense: shops closing, streets emptying; the rain had just stopped and the performance cancellation had just been revoked. Between a stop-starting fountain, a mesmerised baby boy followed Paula Lay’s solo through the park. Solos and duets appeared at odd angles, drawing invisible lines of attention, demanding the audience move, huddle in unexpected sitting formations, or stare at the sun, obliquely gleaming between rain and dusk. A rich lightness was sustained throughout the event, of which we all became part: a curious, question-posing intervention into normally unquestioned space.

The most singular experience of the festival, however, was bettybooke’s en route, a lesson in falling in love with the city. Equipped with headphones, the audience was given small change and sent to explore the marginal spaces of the CBD, one person at a time. Directions and small tasks arrived over the phone, through signs in space, or hidden in the soundtrack, which featured Sigur Ros, Rilke’s poetry and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological musings. Walking down graffiti-coloured laneways, discovering speciality music shops, garage sales and messages from strangers, one was never sure what was constructed and what incidental to the experience. Yet, led by bettybooke’s invisible hand, one felt safe detouring, taking time, seeing the city anew. Soon enough, the modern-day flaneur was shouting on the street, writing on the walls and even running in front of a tram, holding hands with a complete stranger. Urbanistic art is not a rarity in Melbourne, a city in love with its own hidden spaces, but few performances manage to so completely tear through the bubble of reserve in which we spend most of our lives.

Benedict Hardie, Yuri Wells Benedict Hardie, Yuri Wells
photo Lachlan Woods
Hayloft Project’s Yuri Wells, on the other hand, was exemplary of the alternative tendency, to re-think stage space. It opened with a quintessentially Gen-Y moment: two saccharine-sweet boys playing a crocodile xylophone and a ukulele amidst scattered props, telling cute stories of encounters with strangers. However, soon the stage is cleared, and Benedict Hardie’s monologue turns our first impression on its head. Using epic narration, some dialogue and a hint of movement, Yuri Wells, a wide-eyed, smiling, socially inept aged-care nurse, is revealed to be a lonely sociopath. With stuttered embarrassment Hardie tells of stalking a girl, kidnapping and locking her up; he digresses, leaves out key details, and occasionally seems puzzled about his own behaviour. It is an oddly polite show that softly, but precisely, steps on its audience’s toes. It masterfully employs the effect of lagged comprehension: as the narrative progresses, the impressions from the initial set-up echo back distorted and reconvsidered. All the seemingly innocuous props assume a retrospectively horrific meaning: a large wooden chest, half-eaten chocolate cake, with the knife still sticking out, Yuri’s loneliness. As the reliability of the story falls apart, all that remains is the bare stage as an empty frame, teeming with ghosts.

Nature League, Tiger Two Times Nature League, Tiger Two Times
photo Cy Norman
Nature League in North Melbourne, by Tiger Two Times, a quartet of University of Wollongong graduates, was another subtle show that lingered in the imagination. The audience circled a transparent plastic-sheeted glasshouse, barely able to make out the blurred silhouettes of four girls as they settled into a number of vaguely pre-Raphaelite tableaux. It was 20 minutes of little action, but high semiotics: the performers stood in white, embroidered dresses to sweet sounds of nymphish music, pouring water from a jug, throwing flower petals in the air, sitting gracefully or singing in a chorus line. The effect was uncanny, mysterious, leading the audience to a range of controversial reactions: at times, one felt we were joining the performers in a deconstruction and ridicule of the classical idealisation of young women; at other times we were absolutely moved by the sacred miracle of the feminine. Finally, the plastic sheeting was cut through, and we were invited into the glasshouse, now revealed as a stuffy, charmlessly drab construction. The rose petals became pieces of paper, white dresses home-made, water jugs made of plastic, the feminine mystique dead and buried.

Suicide Show, Suicide Show,
photo Ponch Hawkes
Recently it was put to me that there is a deep unease at the very heart of the Australian culture about expressing strong emotions, palpable in an embarrassed little term like ‘argy-bargy’, trying to diminish the importance of ‘argument.’ A Bit of Argy Bargy is a company more than superficially aware of this distressed national relationship with feeling, as their suicide diptych demonstrates. And No More Shall We Part is another excursion into the anxieties of family life for Tom Holloway, whose Red Sky Morning hit the zeitgeist in 2008. Nicknamed “The Assisted Suicide Show”, it is a traditional, text-based performance following an aged couple through DIY euthanasia. Holloway has found a genuinely Australian dramatic rhythm, attentive to the stutters of superficial conversation covering a bubbling pot of suppressed emotion, and a dramaturgy predicated on the anxious anticipation of no event whatsoever; a humming layering of stress.

The Suicide Show, in contrast, is a gutting cabaret. Director Martin White lets unrealised suicidal urges spill from song to song, exacerbated by relentlessly self-effacing humour. Five men progress through a series of vignettes combining masculine vulnerability and sociological sharpness, minute descriptions and wide oscillations of mood. A chorus line tries to dissuade a friend from suicide with clumsy, distressing ineptness, employing jokes, non-committal friendliness, anxious suggestions he “talk to someone”—someone else. Another drunkenly attempts to jump in front of a train, on a “fine Australian day.”

White exposes the deep-seated fear of the feminine in this grotesque take on mateship, layering both overt misogyny (a macabre placement of “Good Night Ladies” at the end of the performance) and emotional illiteracy, through attentive use of popular songs (from Nirvana to John Lennon). Although it is a testimony to Argy Bargy’s brilliance that one man’s psychotic rocking can blend seamlessly into swinging to music, or that a barbershop quartet number can reveal icy undertones of despair, The Suicide Show generates enormous anxiety as it approaches its end, feeling increasingly like an overture to a funeral. Yet the two shows, against all odds, mitigate the effect of each other. While the slow, impotent sadness of And No More magnifies the humour of The Suicide Show, it is retrospectively illuminated by the cabaret as comparatively both lighter and deeper.


Reverb (1), choreographers Martin del Amo, Brooke Stamp, Forecourt, Capital Theatre, Bendigo, Grattan Gardens, Prahran, Sept 24-Oct 11; en route, bettybooke, concept Julian Rickert, Melbourne CBD, Sept 26-Oct 11; Mapping Room, Head Quarters, Sept 25-Oct 4; Hayloft Project, Yuri Wells, writer, performer Benedict Hardie, co-deviser Anne-Louise Sarks, North Melbourne Town Hall, Sept 25-Oct 10; Tiger Two Times, Nature League in North Melbourne, The Warehouse, Sept 25-Oct 2; A Bit of Argy Bargy, & And No More Shall We Part, writer Tom Holloway, The Suicide Show, director Martin White, Black Box, The Arts Centre, Sept 30 -Oct 10; Melbourne Fringe Festival, Sept 23-Oct 11

RealTime issue #94 Dec-Jan 2009 pg. 8

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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