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Four ways to tackle injustice

John Bailey on recent Melbourne theatre

Pauline Whyman, Rainbow's End Pauline Whyman, Rainbow's End
photo Ponch Hawkes
The Big Con

2001's Your Dreaming: The Prime Minister's Cultural Convention brought together the acerbic political wit of Guy Rundle and the latex-laden parody of major Australian figures embodied by Max Gillies. An unofficial sequel (or perhaps series of out-takes), The Big Con is less successful: a buckshot spray of vitriol that only occasionally hits its targets.

Joining the Dreaming team is young artist Eddie Perfect who, it must be said, has matured as a consummate cabaret performer, slipping easily from debonair compere to unobtrusive backing pianist, maintaining an implacable demeanour throughout proceedings. He is the perfect foil to the grotesque hyperbole of Gillies' satirisation which eschews subtlety in favour of the long-clawed swipe. His characterisation of Alexander Downer as an effete geographical dimwit is hilariously exaggerated; on the downside, his rendition of Amanda Vanstone as a KFC-scoffing glutton lowers political comment to the level of obscene fat jokes.

The layers of irony ultimately undermine the efficacy of The Big Con: Perfect and Gillies repeatedly stab at the notion of chardonnay socialism to an audience digesting the 2 course meal they ate before the show, their wallets more than $80 lighter. To feel a sense of self-satisfaction simply because one buys The Big Issue or attends a play about refugees is, according to Perfect, 'so September 10', yet alternatives are not forthcoming. The line between despair and complacency is warily trod here, and the underlying rage propelling Guy Rundle's script too frequently spirals into labyrinthine self-referentiality.

Perhaps the most poignant, if disturbing note is hit when Perfect exhorts his audience to join in the chorus of his (we hope) parodic far-right anthem against homosexual marriage, and actually gets voices chanting along: "Gay people shouldn't get married!" The enthusiastic bawl of several attendees had this viewer squirming; when political theatre takes on a South Park ethos ("It's funny because you're not allowed to say it!") then we are in troubled times indeed. As a clamorous broadside directed at the foibles of major Australian rubbery figures, The Big Con aims true; as a spur to political enquiry, it hobbles itself at every turn.


Mayu Kanamori's Chika is a beast of a different stripe. Billed as a "documentary performance", it blends live music, dance, photo and video footage with performed narration to tell the story of Chika Honda, a Japanese tourist jailed for over a decade for the alleged importation of heroin. Kanamori, a documentary photographer, regularly visited Honda during her incarceration and, though her subject was initially reluctant to be photographed, gradually developed a kind of visual diary conveying her experiences. This reticence, it appears, is part of the reason the resulting documentary is largely impressionistic: the projected images of clouds or wire fences suggest the hand of an artist rather than an objective recorder of facts, and Kanamori eventually acknowledges that at some point she moved from documentarian to friend. The record of injustices portrayed thus takes on a personal hue: Kanamori’s plain narration from the front of the stage does not suggest artifice, but neither does it pretend to offer the facts from an impartial standpoint.

Supplementary material on offer in the foyer (a letter from Honda's pastor and a religious statement from Chika herself) hints at stories untold. What Chika does provide, in the end, is not so much the story of one person's life gone awry as the story of a sensitive and sophisticated artist's response to another person’s pain. This is apparent in Kanamori's decision to invite Butoh artist Yumi Umiumare to perform several interpretive renditions of themes suggested throughout the piece. At the same time, Kanamor's journalistic kudos is affirmed with police video and television news footage. Tom Fitzgerald's musical direction and erformance alongside musicians Anne Norman (shakuhachi), Satsuki Odamura (koto) and Toshinori Sakamoto (wadaiko) is an astonishing complement; a concert-level performance that adds immeasurably to the emotive power of this intimate unfolding. Chika is an impassioned plea for justice that speaks well of its creator, and records an otherwise unnoticed travesty of the Australian justice system.

Pugilist Specialist

Red Stitch Actors Theatre has made a name for itself through solid productions emphasising psychological realism and dynamic staging; recent productions have expanded this brief to include less naturalistic works. The decision to stage US playwright Adrian Shapiro's Pugilist Specialist furthers this expansion, with mixed results. Certainly, the work is a powerful if problematic intervention in the field of contemporary US politics. Four marines prepare to assassinate an unnamed Middle Eastern personality. We witness their training and eventual raid on the victim's mansion, but action here takes a backseat to dialogue. Shapiro's polemic against US militarism is fettered by a curiously verbose, almost Beckettian rendering of language which prevents engagement. Characterisation remains static, circling endlessly around the basic conflicts between team members. Certainly the ensemble deserves applause for seeking out new directions; in this instance, though, the limitations of a complex but confounding script are too apparent.

Rainbow's End

I approached Ilbijerri's production of Rainbow's End warily—media materials and other press had focused on the work's nostalgia. True, its creators include Stolen writer Jane Harrison and director Wesley Enoch (Stolen, Conversations with the Dead, The Sapphires), but the pre-press mentions of the 1950s setting, including the Queen's visit to Australia, radio's Pick-A-Box and the Melbourne Olympics, connoted a staid if not conservative view at odds with the stated subject matter. Surely the story of 3 generations of Aboriginal women couldn't be so retroactive? Thankfully, this wasn't the case.

Rainbow's End emanates joy. Its trio of female leads face horrific hardship (rape, dislocation, poverty) but the sense of triumph they generate is well nigh overwhelming. Early in the piece I sensed I was viewing a musical without songs: the characters and situations were painted with broad brushstrokes, emotions were over the top and the pace was rapid. Secondary characters were given less depth: Gareth Ellis'encyclopaedia salesman who falls in love with Tammy Clarkson's Dolly seems a little too innocent to ring true, and Lionel Austin as Dolly's attacker is a constant though rarely acknowledged presence at the stage's periphery (fitting, as he also acts as the assistant stage manager). However, this technique of generalised typing only heightens the effectiveness of particular scenes of acute psychological intimacy; when the 3 women are forcibly moved to a concrete housing block the simple act of searching for change to feed the failing light meter represents a far more pervasive desperation.

Pauline Whyman as the family's core, Gladys, manages to transcend the script's generalities to produce a remarkably touching and sophisticated character. Grandmother Nan Dear (Beryl Booth) and daughter Dolly occasionally suggest more superficial characterisations, but once again this is perhaps in keeping with the script and the style of the work. Rainbow's End is a gently involving piece that merits acclaim for its many creators.

The Big Con, writer Guy Rundle; directors Aubrey Mellor, Denis Moore; performers Max Gillies, Eddie Perfect; The Arts Centre, Melbourne, Feb 23-March 12; The CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, March 13-April 3

Chika, writer Mayu Kanamori; director Malcolm Blaylock; performers Yumi Umiumare, Satsuki Odamura, Anne Norma, Toshinori Sakamoto, Tom Fitzgerald, Mayu Kanamori; The CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, Feb 23-26

Pugilist Specialist, writer Adrian Shapiro; performers Kate Cole, Dion Mills, Richard Cawthorne, Kenneth Ransome; Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Feb 2-March 5

Rainbow's End, writer Jane Harrison, director Wesley Enoch; performers Beryl Booth, Tammy Clarkson, Gareth Ellis, Pauline Whyman; Sidney Myer Ampitheatre, Melbourne Museum; Feb 21-March 5

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 44

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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