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ten days on the island


stirring transformations

andrew harper: ten days on the island: metamorphosis; ross bolleter


Ross Bolleter’s Ruined Pianos Ross Bolleter’s Ruined Pianos
photo Peter Whyte-Roar Film
ONE OF THE TRADITIONS OF TEN DAYS ON THE ISLAND SEEMS TO BE TO PRESENT AN ASTONISHING THEATRICAL SPECTACLE RICH IN GRANDEUR AND VISIONARY SCOPE. TWO YEARS AGO, WE GOT DREAM MASONS, AN OUTDOOR SHOW THAT WAS HUGE IN SCOPE AND VISION, AND AN AWFUL LOT OF PEOPLE SAW IT. I THOUGHT IT WAS BREATHTAKING, BUT IT ALSO HAD A FEW PROBLEMS. METAMORPHOSIS WAS FASCINATINGLY SIMILAR—AMAZING THEATRE, YET SOMETHING NOT QUITE RIGHT. IT WAS ALMOST TOO AMAZING.

Metamorphosis, a collaboration between Theatre Vesturport of Iceland and David Farr’s Lyric Theatre of Hammersmith, is an interpretation of Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis. Gregor Samsa awakens one day to find himself transformed into something hideous, something not human. His family are terrified and disgusted by his new state. His sister tries to communicate but, in the end, she cannot and Gregor dies alone.

The incredible, two storey set for this work must be one of the most lavish I’ve encountered, so finely tuned that every tiny detail glowed. On the second floor, we saw Gregor’s room as if looking down into it—this clash with the normal perspective downstairs produced vertigo and discordance. The Nick Cave-Warren Ellis soundtrack added richness, yet even more incredible was the feat of athleticism accomplished by Gísli Örn Gardarsson in his performance as Gregor. He scuttled about, even hanging from the ceiling, totally in control of his physicality and his realisation of Gregor. The rest of the cast gave stylised, almost robotic performances that contrasted strongly with the humanity exuded by Gardarsson, asking us, who is human.

It was all too easy to pick sides here though, as what we could see was actually an athlete who could elicit compassion from an audience while hanging upside down five metres in the air. He was too easy to like, and the family too easy to judge. Or was it that spectacle itself disallowed the complexity I craved?

When I saw the Auckland Theatre Company’s Hatch, everything that had left me uneasy about Metamorphosis was thrown into sharp relief. Hatch is the real tale of Joseph Hatch, who made a fortune boiling down thousands of penguins for their oil on Macquarie Island. Nasty. The idea of exploring the history of a repugnant capitalist and environmental vandal supreme is a peculiar one. The man is unlikeable, yet such was the craft of this performance that I was seduced.

Historically, Hatch had pleaded his case to the public after his licence to operate was revoked. The show is a recreation of the lectures he gave in Hobart. But this is a lot more than historical recreation; the show presents us with a clash of ideologies embodied in the ultimately tragic story of an intriguing character. Hatch gave us his point of view for an hour: he spoke of industry, civilisation and progress. He spoke of hard work, tackling the elements, economic vision and daring—and it was fascinating. The man’s life, his epic migrations, his contribution to the history of Australia, New Zealand and Tasmania were gripping theatre. I’d never known of him, but here was a life that encountered historical giants such as HG Wells, Sir Douglas Mawson and Baron Rothschild as opponents during the movement against his slaughter of penguins.This was very probably the world’s first pro-environmental campaign.

Stuart Devenie is a masterful actor, bringing Joseph Hatch to robust life, and even making him likeable. For an arch capitalist, a murderer of thousands of beautiful wild birds he comes across as charismatic and funny. The ambiguity is palpable and discomforting. I was amused and challenged by this show, as well as being impressed by how effectively one man and a slide projector can hold an audience. Especially poignant was the chime of the Hobart GPO clock marking time; sheer coincidence and yet Devenie worked the chimes into the performance. When the clock finally struck seven, Hatch wordlessly stared out the City Hall window, open mouthed, maybe afraid. His time was up. The theatrical power of this small, perfect moment was memorable, but so was everything about this admirably tight show.

I can’t truly say that Hatch was a better show than Metamorphosis, that isn’t the point. This isn’t some contest of theatrical styles, but I did wonder if populist spectacle is the answer to our needs. I was glad to see Ten Days catering for all comers in the end.

Ross Bolleter’s Ruined exhibition at the Bond Store of the Tasmanian Art Gallery & Museum offered a glimpse into the extraordinarily creative and unique mind of one of Australia’s most vital—what? What is Bolleter exactly? This isn’t an easy question, for although he is certainly a gifted musician, he is also an historian and a curator. He collects ruined pianos—pianos that have been left to the mercy of the elements, stored on their sides in sheds and covered in tools, gone mouldy and had possums draw their last breath and rot in them.

Bolleter plays the pianos, talks about them and presents each one’s story. His investigations into the sound made by ruined pianos requires a precise sensitivity to history, as well as a very refined understanding of the potential for sound to convey meaning. When one considers the importance of the piano as a centrepiece to the colonial household, which Bolleter drove home in his enlightening and informative lectures, one begins to grasp the sheer scale of his project—investigating colonialism and its residue by concentrating on a particular object. Bolleter plays ruined pianos with a great deal of respect for “what the piano offers”, and this would appear to be the resonance of history itself. There are no wrong notes; there is only the presence of time and the impact of place.

Much is implied by the simple tale of how a piano got to be left in the bush, how it was taken up river, who it was played by and every other tiny detail that has affected the sound that Bolleter coaxed from it, even if there was nothing but a rusty frame to be tapped and plucked. In doing so, he is pointing to our nation’s past and in this fractured, yet totally and deeply considered music, lies Australia’s colonial history: its triumphs and its shame. This is a powerful and moving project, clearly years in the making. Ross Bolleter is a unique artist with an engrossing vision.

I liked a lot about Ten Days on the Island this year, but Ross Bolleter’s Ruined stood out as unique, truly engaged with the people (of the towns of Stanley, Derby and Ross) and with the history of Tasmania.


Theatre Vesturport and Lyric Hammersmith, Metamorphosis, adapted & directed by David Farr and Gísli Örn Gardarsson, performers Nína Dögg Filippusdóttir, Ingvar E Sigurdsson, Kelly Hunter, Jonathan McGuiness, Gísli Örn Gardarsson, music Nick Cave, Warren Ellis, design Börkur Jónsson, costume Brenda Murphy, lighting Hartley TA Kemp, sound Nick Manning; Theatre Royal, March 27-April 1; Auckland Theatre Company, Hatch, writer Geoff Chapple, director Colin McColl, performer Stuart Devenie, design Denise Hosty, Tony Rabbit; Hobart Town Hall, March 27-30; Ruined, exhibition curation and demonstrations by Ross Bolleter, The Bond Store, Tasmanian Art Gallery & Museum, March 27-May 5; Ten Days on the Island, Hobart, March 26-April 24

RealTime issue #91 June-July 2009 pg. 14

© Andrew Harper; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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