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Canopy delights, underground hell

Kirsten Krauth, Castlemaine State Festival

Kirsten Krauth’s novel just_a_girl has been published by UWA Publishing:

The Man Who Planted Trees, Puppet State Theatre Company The Man Who Planted Trees, Puppet State Theatre Company
photo J Barker
Castlemaine. A town rich in gold mining history. Set around a river that never runs (but often floods). A town where every second person you meet is a writer or artist. The best of inner city—coffee, dumplings, markets, gigs crammed into two big blocks. The best of rural as you watch roos and rosellas in your backyard after rain. A town where beautiful old buildings stand and decay. And every two years, an ambitious 10-day program of theatre, music, literature and visual arts.

Apparently you need a grandparent buried in the cemetery to call yourself a local, but I’ve been here nine months and this is my first festival. I can walk. Everywhere. The laneways are covered in works by high school kids. One stencil of a reindeer on the wall of the Bendigo Bank—with the accompanying inscription “Christmas is a lie”—causes outrage. A stealthy graffiti artist comes at night to blacken the inscription out. Makes front page of the local rag. You can’t offend Santa in this town. Or what’s his name, Jesus, for that matter. But does the teen artist remember a time when Christmas was about more than Masterchef-ing the BBQ, or cheap gift tags from the two dollar shop?

“I need a dollar, dollar, a dollar is what I need”
[soul singer, rapper Aloe Blacc]

Ranters Theatre, This Is Me—Now

Actually, the festival is rich with insight into what young artists think. In This Is Me—Now, Ranters Theatre creates video portraits with five teenagers from the region: Ruby Benedict, Ruby Scott, Bonnie Cook-Hain, Eamon Coulthard and Holly McNamara. The videos are about identity and space, and the rules of longing and belonging. Holly is a girl straight to camera, sitting in the bush. She describes it as a “very unconditional space…doesn’t need anything added to it” as she performs a soft-spoken song on her ukulele. Ruby Benedict does a performance piece to camera, becoming ‘the huntress’ on a red velvet couch. Ruby Scott turns her back, drawing a surreal cityscape that morphs into a creature as her voiceover draws me in. Bonnie, swinging her legs over the railway platform, sees herself as a girl who can’t conform—“most girls want to fit in…the in crowd”—and doesn’t care. In her white roller skates she talks about her love of books, music, family, friends and contact sports: “I like being pushed around on the field…Being different makes me feel confident.” Eamon imagines Castlemaine in a state of heightened anxiety—‘lock down’, ‘code red’—a place undergoing rapid (and sinister) change, where spikes are placed on the tops of buildings to ward off birds, even though no birds ever land there.

The Republic of Trees

But the birds have plenty of other places to land. Castlemaine is the kind of place where gleaning is encouraged. Organised groups fossick from trees ripe with apples and pears, distributing extras to community centres and local childcare. A living stage at the festival has planters. Tales of trees, of eco-survival, permeate the performances. In The Republic of Trees (based on Italo Calvino’s novel The Baron in the Trees), a wandering minstrel show that meanders through beautiful Vaughan Springs, we encounter a dining table at dusk, with butlers in waiting and young women walking their dogs around the perimeter. We learn of creatures that can cross the country east to west, their feet never touching the earth. At midnight, Cosimo (Matt Wilson) joins the canopy, vowing never to set down again. Wilson’s physical theatre experience shows as he glides through trees on ropes and ladders, slippery with condensation. As we hear of God pissing down, rain starts to fall on us. Bookshelves and chairs are suspended, pulleyed, as we hear tales of yearning, philosophy, romance. For Cosimo, all that matters is principle, his ideologies of freedom, even if it means losing out on love. But his act becomes commodified, a display to be rolled out for an audience: “see nature’s greatest marvel.” And at what point—wars, horrors, exile, environmental degradation—is it more important to touch the ground?

The Man Who Planted Trees

In The Man Who Planted Trees, a farmer in Provence seeds hundreds of plants a day, in an arid region where nothing grows except wild lavender (the performers waft scents like lavender and mint over the audience with large fans). Scotland’s Puppet State Theatre Company takes us to meet him, accompanied by a dog (the true star of the show). The performance works brilliantly by paralleling two narratives: the straight parable, along with the dog’s meta-textual journey. A dog who just can’t help himself, he keeps butting us out of the narrative—“It turns out my eyes are buttons! Amazed I can see anything at all!”—to great comic effect. The timing is wonderful, the writing simple and complex (at once) and the show works on the level of all great children’s storytelling (The Muppets, Aardman) where the humour comes from where the two strands of narrative merge.

Site-specifics and Transplant

Such as they are, Transplant Such as they are, Transplant
photo E Dutra
Back down on the ground and I head to the festival’s biennial visual arts program (curated by Deborah Ratliff), where the site-specific works are outstanding—Pia Johnson’s shrine of Chinese red packets, Hong Bao; Bindi Cole’s dialogue, I forgive you, at the Theatre Royal cinema; Tara Gilbee’s apothecary at Tutes Cottage; and Clayton Tremlett’s character sketches at the Old Police Lockup—before entering a tiny cube-theatre, and donning my scrubs for the puppetry production Transplant. As an operation goes awry and a woman unleashes frogs and flowers from her stomach, the actor-cum-doctor and his unpredictable patient manage to unnerve everyone to the point where I am the only audience member left in the room.

Chants des Catacombes

Chants des Catacombes Chants des Catacombes
photo Pia Johnson
There’s a lot of talk of community in this town. And of protest too, for example the recent successful EPIC battle against the coming of the pokies. And now there’s the gaol. A beautiful and haunting site on a hill, looking over the town, it’s recently been sold for a pissy amount. There’s rumour of apartments. But it’s spectacular as a site for performance. The highlight of the festival is Chants des Catacombes. We arrive at the gaol at 11pm. Lit by small candles, we walk the flickering perimeter and are led into a dark space. Out of smoke, three screaming prisoners appear. Above and under us, the women are close enough to touch (and we do). They merge their foreheads to ours, pleading. They crawl through our legs, begging. Their voices soar through the corridors and down the narrow stairs as we follow them: a French showgirl in a salon (we loll on her bed as she plays the harp); a courtesan dancing for the general; a surgeon (under pretence: a woman pretending to be a man). And just as I’m thinking, “why do female characters have to be so passive?” the work takes up this question directly, speaks of Desdemona and Othello, shifts a gear to take up the fight.

The entire performance is told through contemporary song and dance, and undergoes a Baz treatment, morphing from the gender-bending Blur’s “Girls & Boys” to Nirvana to Portishead to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and even Kelis’ “Milkshake” for comic effect. The three central performers Anna Boulic, Laura Burzacott and Zoe McDonald are murder victims trapped in the underworld and they raise hell with their voices. The choreography and lighting—as the musicians and actors lead you through the space—entrap and confront you with your own fears of madness and confinement. The audience is jittery. They hold back and are compliant. But the performers stay intimate and in-your-face, restless with violence and payback. It’s a performance I longed to see endlessly on repeat—in a space I couldn’t wait to be released from.

Castlemaine State Festival, director Martin Paten, 15-24 March.

Kirsten Krauth’s novel just_a_girl has been published by UWA Publishing:

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 22

© Kirsten Krauth; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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