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Australian Bureau of Worthiness, I Met Hindley Street Australian Bureau of Worthiness, I Met Hindley Street
courtesy the artists
Two works appearing in Adelaide late last year sought to expose the city’s underbelly. They could not have been more contrasting—one coolly investigative in form and poor in aesthetic, the other richly fictive and classically ambitious—but both productions gave Adelaide audiences a rare opportunity to witness their home city reflected uncompromisingly back at them through scenarios peopled with outsiders, fringe dwellers and the morally ambiguous.

Australian Bureau of Worthiness, I Met Hindley Street

Like Sydney’s King’s Cross, or Melbourne’s St Kilda, Hindley Street is a uniquely evocative name among locals, redolent of nocturnal squalor, urban decay and the thriving, undeclared markets of the night: sex and drugs. No other Adelaide street provokes as much fear or scorn or giddiness. It is these feelings which the Australian Bureau of Worthiness tap into in the latest in their now long-running I Met… series of localised explorations, each one an ad hoc fusion of performance, documentary and visual art.

The series’ Hindley Street iteration saw the ABW team–performer Emma Beech, visual artist James Dodd and writer and director Tessa Leong—hole up for three weeks in a disused Bank Street basement, just off of Hindley Street and formerly home to an Indian restaurant. Some of the gaudy, amateurish murals are still there, faded flashes of the Taj Mahal’s white domes still visible amid the crumbling brickwork. The space is warehouse-like, the industrial atmosphere heightened by the sound of water or sewerage flowing through pipes overhead. In places, the walls are bedecked with sketches, handwritten notes, interview transcripts, business cards: the result of the ABW team’s interactions with the tourists, locals, shopkeepers, barflies, blue- and white-collar workers who populate the street above.

There is a traverse stage in the centre of the space. As the performance begins, an overall-clad Dodd pushes a broom languorously around the stage as though clearing away the vomit and the cigarette butts and, maybe, blood from the night before. Beech has described her core practice as “stand-up documentary” and it is hard not to think of this description as she takes to the stage, microphone and cue cards in hand. There are no punch lines, but Beech embodies her interview subjects fully and sympathetically in the manner of the best stage comics, and we laugh anyway because this is not a comedy predicated on jokes but on unsettling the familiar; the ubiquitous toupéed hustler in the ice-cream white suit, the Crazy Horse Revue’s unavoidable neon plumage. Dodd’s unpolished sketches, thrown onto the walls of the space by an old-fashioned overhead projector, achieve a similar effect, although their uncontextualised appearances occasionally jar.

Immersive and freewheeling, but constrained by Tessa Leong’s focused direction, I Met Hindley Street discreetly succeeds in making one of Adelaide’s most familiar—and contested—public spaces strange again.

Maggie Stone, State Theatre Company of South Australia Maggie Stone, State Theatre Company of South Australia
photo Matt Nettheim
STCSA, Maggie Stone

Caleb Lewis’ new play, a commission by the State Theatre Company of South Australia, also asks its audience to think about the city in which it is taking place. According to Lewis the play emerged partly out of the playwright’s frustration with a seeming monopoly of new Australian plays set in the nation’s bigger cities: Brisbane and Perth, Melbourne and Sydney. As with Peter Goldsworthy’s Adelaide-set short stories, however, it is easy to mistake the thrill of recognition (a suburb or street name, or that of a local personality or business) for a bona fide investigation of place. Maggie Stone could, in fact, be set in any Australian city. Lewis’ themes are universal in scope: debt, both monetary and social; the nature of altruism; local and global charity and its consequences; immigration and multiculturalism; morality and self-interest.

Maggie Stone (Kris McQuade) is a loans officer. In the kind of politically incorrect parlance of which she would approve, the rough, tough Stone has been “left on the shelf.” She is not young anymore, lives alone and eats, smokes and drinks too much. She is permanently lugubrious, but some days are worse than others, and on one such day a recent immigrant from Sudan, Prosper Deng (Shedrick Yarkpai), walks into her office seeking a loan for a car so he can work. Stone turns him down and An Inspector Calls-like whirlpool of social irresponsibility drags Deng’s family deeply into debt, and into the clutches of improbably-named loan shark Leo Hermes (Mark Saturno).

Events unfold rapidly in short scenes—some elusively wordless, others seemingly redundant—giving the play a televisual feel which is at odds with the Aristotelian embellishments Lewis introduces much too late. Hermes’ gruesome slaying (by knife—Lewis’ ‘Chekhov’s gun’) is presumably intended to provide the requisite catharsis, but the mark is missed because the bloodletting—and Hermes’ final, overwrought speech in which he thunders the old fatalist cliché about blood having to be paid for with blood—feels under-supported by the play’s brevity and narrow dramatic focus.

Director Geordie Brookman can’t quite reconcile these differences in scale, although all of the cast—notwithstanding occasional slides into broadness—give strongly persuasive performances. Particularly impressive are McQuade, agreeably disagreeable in a part written for her, and Yarkpai who, in his first professional production, brings gravity and a keen sense of youth’s desolating ennui respectively to his roles as Prosper and Prosper’s son Benny. Victoria Lamb’s set, a labyrinth of oversized latticework and spookily reflective panels, allows for unfussy transitions between the many scenes. Its indeterminate depths and multiple sliding doors quietly gesture towards the inscrutable physical and corporate architectures of the West’s financial institutions.

If Maggie Stone is this system’s human analogue within Lewis’ play—hard, obdurate and accountable to no one—then she also shares its fallibility. Lewis mentions in his program note that greed brought about the Global Financial Crisis and it is greed which has literally hardened Maggie Stone’s heart to the point of ruin. It is, of course, the playwright’s job to expose the human within the inhuman, and Stone is ultimately shown to be the sentimentalist we like to imagine all sociopaths are underneath. Maggie Stone is not as trite as that sounds, but the play’s uneven form, and its imprecise connections between the bigger stories of the global movements of capital and people, diminishes its impact.

Australian Bureau of Worthiness, I Met Hindley Street, devisers, performers Emma Beech, Tessa Leong, James Dodd, 27 Bank Street, Adelaide, 22-6 Nov; State Theatre Company of South Australia, Maggie Stone, writer Caleb Lewis, director Geordie Brookman, Space Theatre, Adelaide, 8-30 Nov, 2013.

RealTime issue #119 Feb-March 2014 pg. 35

© Ben Brooker; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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