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Good works for hardworking audiences

John Bailey: POINT 8 SIX; The Village Bike

Adam Cass, Point 8 SIX, La Mama Theatre Adam Cass, Point 8 SIX, La Mama Theatre
promotional image by Jason Cavanagh
Pitting art against science rarely does favours to either, but when the science is of the mad variety and the art follows its own rigorous surrealist logic? That's a fight that may be worth betting on. Or, at least, that's what I was thinking throughout a recent show at La Mama which was by turns baffling and welcoming, generous and alienating. POINT 8 SIX is a work that is deliberately broken, and it challenges its viewer to reconstruct something from the pieces. There's a sense that that assemblage will take as many different forms as there are audience members.

I've followed writer Tim Wotherspoon's work for several years, over which he has demonstrated a sustained interest in the tactility of language, the way words can be played against one another like billiard balls and whether meaning or nonsense can result from accidental collisions and unexpected associations. Here he has produced an intriguing premise that puts that kind of experimentation into context, though it takes some time to get to.

Wotherspoon himself plays a crazed scientist in 2142 (I think) who has been tasked with sending operatives back in time to eliminate two genius sisters responsible for some kind of revolution that seems to extend to the breakdown of reality itself. We're dumped right in the thick of this, with bizarre fragmentary dialogue, characters in time loops, alternate realities overlapping and metatheatrical devices juggled in at whim. That nothing makes a lick of sense for so long is very much mitigated by the fact that much of it is still entertaining—director Kirsten von Bibra maintains a shaggy-dog-story mood through which all of this seems to be going somewhere, if we only stick with it. Everyone overplays their roles with scenery-chewing glee, most notably Adam Cass as the idiot American would-be hero sent into the past again and again, eventually suffering “temporal spread” and scattering all over the spacetime continuum.

Tim Wotherspoon, Point Eight 6, La Mama Theatre Tim Wotherspoon, Point Eight 6, La Mama Theatre
photo Kris Chainey
Early in the work the audience is addressed as 'the system' and positioned as a network of computers, and it's possible that the strangeness of what we're witnessing is just about what an intelligent machine would make of the messiness of human interaction. In the fallout is an East German army captain from 1971 who comes into possession of some David Bowie records from the future, and while this thread seems more indulgent than the rest—Wotherspoon admits he was listening to Bowie's Berlin trilogy throughout the writing process—it's also concrete enough to allow the observer some anchor amid all the narrative fractals.

The shredding of spacetime along with some serious damage to the sanity of the players gives Wotherspoon ample reason to mess around with language. Someone “talks like a bowl of Alsatians” while another complains, “You two sound like my ears.” There's much delight behind this linguistic play, and a final opening out of the theatre itself sent an equally cheery ripple through the audience. It's rare to find a theatremaker who trusts the crowd enough to throw them so far from the shore of sense, but reassuring that those behind this production are up to the task of reeling us back in.

Ella Caldwell, Matt Dyktynski, Village Bike, Red Stitch Theatre Ella Caldwell, Matt Dyktynski, Village Bike, Red Stitch Theatre
photo Jodie Hutchinson
Red Stitch's The Village Bike is another production with a great deal of faith in its audience. The work, by UK playwright Penelope Skinner, shifts from hilarious to confronting and back again without warning, and cunningly merges British sex farce with dark psychological drama.

The central figure is Becky, a young pregnant woman who has recently moved to a rural village with her husband. She's one of the more fascinatingly ambiguous characters in recent memory, and one bound to incite powerful responses. A third of the way in I heard a voice behind me mutter, “I don't think I like her at all...” and half an hour later followed up with an angry, “Now I've just about had enough of her!”

Becky's pregnancy has coincided with a sudden blooming of sexual desire but partner John spurns her advances, preferring to bury himself in parenting books. She turns to porn for relief but soon takes up with a local Lothario and begins an increasingly destructive affair that includes rape fantasies, a young girl forced by necessity into prostitution and a kind of emotional abuse of a local tradesman.

Skinner seems to be consciously playing with the discord between various narratives of female sexual liberation—from Lady Chatterley's Lover to bodice rippers—and the dangers of blurring fantasies and reality. The work is aware of the long, long tradition of women punished for expressing desire, but it doesn't soften its conclusion with any type of redemption, either. It comes dangerously close to a morality tale, in fact, though where fault lies is left painfully open to debate.

If Becky's choices both challenge the viewer while begging our empathy, husband John is a kind of caring villain of the sort I've not seen on a stage before. His attempts to provide for Becky eventually amount to controlling behaviour, and while he insists that caring is all that he does it comes across as patting a dog to death. That his partner may have any sort of interior life doesn't seem to factor into his thinking, and neither does the possibility that she may know her body better than his books do.

The play was first read by the company some years ago and its difficulties—both thematically and in the large stage it demands—meant that it was shelved. But it lingered in company members' minds enough that they had to present it, in the end, and the work will no doubt stay with its audiences, for better or worse or, more likely, a little of both.

POINT 8 SIX, writer Tim Wotherspoon, director Kirsten von Bibra, lighting Kris Chainey; La Mama, 10-21 Feb; The Village Bike, writer Penelope Skinner, director Ngaire Dawn Fair, design Sophie Woodward, lighting Clare Springett, music & sound Ian Moorhead; Red Stitch Actors Theatre, Melbourne, 2 Feb-5 March

RealTime issue #131 Feb-March 2016 pg. web

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

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