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the theatre of our city selves

caroline wake: tantrum theatre, newcastle, nsw


Steffen Hesping, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, Tantrum Theatre Steffen Hesping, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, Tantrum Theatre
photo Lauren O’Brien
THE SCRIPT FOR PETER HANDKE’S WORDLESS PLAY THE HOUR WE KNEW NOTHING OF EACH OTHER INDICATES: “THE STAGE IS AN OPEN SQUARE IN BRIGHT LIGHT.” IN HER REVIEW OF THE NATIONAL THEATRE 2008 PRODUCTION IN LONDON, GUARDIAN BLOGGER LYN GARDNER COMMENTED THAT “RATHER THAN BEING PUT ON AT THE NATIONAL, MAYBE [IT] SHOULD BE STAGED OUTDOORS.” IT SEEMS OBVIOUS ENOUGH, ESPECIALLY IN THE AGE OF THE FLASHMOB, BUT APPARENTLY NO ONE HAS DONE SO. THAT IS, UNTIL NOW, ON THIS NOVEMBER NIGHT IN NEWCASTLE, WHERE TANTRUM THEATRE IS PERFORMING AT WHEELER PLACE IN THE CITY’S CIVIC PRECINCT.

Within Wheeler Place, which is too large and windswept for a performance, designer Kat Chan has fenced off a smaller rectangle. On one side there is a concrete barricade and a building shaped like a beehive. Perpendicular to this, a set of wide and shallow concrete steps leads up to the cavernous entrance of a brick warehouse. The third and fourth sides are seating banks for the audience. Surrounding us are the sights and sounds of Saturday night in Newcastle: we can catch glimpses of King Street and Civic Park and we can hear cars throbbing up and down Hunter Street. High above are the palm trees and the Newcastle City Hall clock tower, which strikes eight and signals the beginning of this absorbing performance.

Suddenly a man sprints diagonally across the space. Two girls run in the other direction. Then another man comes down the steps, gulping up the night air. Children skip across the stage and an old lady drags her shopping cart on another adventure. Two firemen hurtle through and some latecomers arrive, though they could easily be part of the performance, a worker almost knocks over a woman with his ladder and a skater breezes by. There is a man lugging rugs, a stockman cracking his whip and an office worker on a coffee run. Groups of schoolchildren wander by, always with a straggler at the back. Every once in a while the action is interrupted by the town fool who likes to mimic, follow and harass, or the street cleaner, who is constantly sweeping.

In amongst all of this activity, there are some lovely lulls when even the wind contrives to participate, swirling dust and debris across the stage. There is also a brief interlude when the performance is suspended for rain. Nevertheless the play soon regains its momentum as a glamorous woman (a minor celebrity perhaps) walks with a false self-consciousness across the square, acutely aware of every stare. The clock strikes nine, Moses comes down from the mount (or at least the warehouse) and a body bag is picked up and stretchered off. Sometimes it is as if European theatre history is playing itself out over two hours instead of several thousand years: there are gods, clowns, detectives, characters from the opera and the Bible, a lost circus and at one point the whole company might well be a Greek chorus. Other times, it is as if humanity itself is washing across the stage: characters’ paths cross, miss and run parallel to each other and there are arguments, reunions, pregnancies and deaths.

This is a well-paced and detailed production of Handke’s evocative scripted stage directions. (Gitta Honneger’s translation includes lines such as “The empty square in bright light, like a tiny island surrounded by an episodic torrent of oceanic sounds. The whistle of a marmot, the scream of an eagle. For an eerily brief moment, the shrilling of a cicada” [New Haven: Yale UP, 1996]). Director Brendan O’Connell has harnessed the energy of 54 performers, aged between five and 26, who play 450 characters between them. It is exhilarating to see so many bodies on stage and for the most part they are disciplined and generous, rarely loitering too long and almost always ready to share the space. Sound designer Roxzan Bowes allows Christopher Harley’s original compositions to coexist sympathetically with the city’s own soundscape and at various points we hear strains of a song from the pub next door (“Oh Mickey you’re so fine, you’re so fine you blow my mind. Hey Mickey! Hey Mickey!”). Similarly, John Zeder’s lighting design does not try to compete with the existing street lighting but rather to amplify it. The overall effect is of theatre deconstructed while simultaneously a sort of meta-theatre is reconstructed. Like the spectators of Handke’s most famous play, Offending the Audience, we are constantly reminded that this is a performance. Yet, like the angels in Wings of Desire—Handke’s film collaboration with Wim Wenders—we are granted an overview of life not normally available to us and certainly not available to those we are watching. We sit, taking it all in and stitching together our own version of the town square. In the final moments of the play, everyone runs across the stage before coming to a standstill and looking out at the audience. We’ve not known each other for nearly two hours now.

On the night I attend there are also a couple of speeches, marking the end of the year for the Tantrum Theatre team. While it has been operating since 1976 as 2 Til 5 Youth Theatre, the company was reborn and rebranded in 2003, gaining additional momentum in April 2008 when it appointed O’Connell—a former recipient of an Australia Council Flying Start grant—as Artistic Director. Like Powerhouse Youth Theatre or PACT in Sydney, or Platform Youth Theatre in Melbourne, the company aims not only to develop young artists’ skills but also to enable local emerging artists to create their own work in collaboration with professionals. Though Tantrum Theatre is not yet as famous as other Novocastrian organisations such as Octapod or events such as This Is Not Art, or even strategies such as LiveSites and Renew Newcastle, the company is becoming an increasingly important part of the city’s evolving arts ecology. In the process they are building a reputation for ambitious, innovative and inclusive performance. If you have the chance, I recommend getting to know them better.


Tantrum Theatre, The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other, writer Peter Handke, translator Gitta Honegger, director Brendan O’Connell, performers Tantrum Theatre junior and senior ensembles, designer Kat Chan, lighting designer John Zeder, composer Christopher Harley, sound designer Roxzan Bowes, Wheeler Place, Civic Precinct Newcastle, Nov 26-28, 2009. www.tantrumtheatre.org

RealTime issue #95 Feb-March 2010 pg. 40

© Caroline Wake; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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