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The power of invention

Keith Gallasch

Katrina Gill, Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, Politely Savage Katrina Gill, Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, Politely Savage
photo Heidrun Löhr
The last few months have provided some inspirational performances, not something that can be claimed very often of the always hard work of making art, but when companies of young artists like Sydney’s My Darling Patricia and Melbourne’s Squealing Stuck Pigs Theatre realise haunting visions that thrill with their meticulous crafting and assuredness, the pleasure is palpable, the word is good and faith in the future of performance is restored. Both companies mix their media into a seamless totality–performance as installation, acting, movement, puppetry and film. Add to these the work of Matthew Lutton in Perth (p37), version 1.0 in Sydney (see RT68), Lucy Guerin’s Aether (p14) and the new lease of life for Melbourne theatre in the form of Michael Kantor’s Malthouse (p29), and the sense of possibility, of invention and renewal is pervasive.

Politely Savage

This is a very, very strange experience. We are greeted in the tiny PACT foyer by 3 young women (Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Katrina Gill) all a-flutter like 50s cocktail hostesses in matching full red dresses, high heels and fixed smiles, speedily distributing bland snacks, cheap champagne and snippets of party banter. A nearby crash plunges them quaking into shocked silence, a sudden nervous fragility revealed, a crack in the façade followed by brisk recovery. A no-nonsense housekeeper (Cecily Hardy) arrives, announcing that she will be our guide, and leads us into the PACT performance space to encounter...a house. A very complete 2-storey ruin of a house through which we are led, first down a corridor of tattered wallpaper, splintered timber and embedded signs of life–old postcards, photos and clippings. Our hostess speaks ominously of someone who once lived here, a dry woman in a dry landscape, waiting to be flooded with feeling as much as with rain. She recalls the flooding of the Todd River in Alice Springs every decade, always leaving behind unidentified bodies. Our transformation is well underway, from innocent party guests to guided visitors, to curious confidantes.

We are led into a claustrophobic, dimly lit dusty room where our giddy girls appear in sombre mood to show a film (silhouette puppetry of a child barked at by increasingly monstrous and interchangeable women and dogs) and to act out 2 grim little vignettes with puppets. The first skinny puppet child plays with blocks, throws them away, becomes anxiously aware of us, is strapped to a chair, blind-folded and left, only to make a furtive escape. To the sound of wonderfully mock-Japanese music (toy piano, a high-flying voice) the second child puppet, with its outsize moon-face, is painstakingly, agonisingly coaxed into walking by its red-dressed manipulator, but then cruelly dumped. Dust pours down from the ceiling, instant karma perhaps, over the woman. She remains impassive. Shocked, we are taken upstairs.

We find ourselves on a rooftop looking deep down into the house, into a pool where 3 bodies float face down in water. Our hostesses in petticoats. The frightening vision expands, the walls are mirrors, and we are observed–a girl sits by the pool, lifelike, but, we soon sense, a mute witness, a statue, There are signs of life in the pool, the women slowly emerge and climb the stairs. They pass by like ghosts, treading a narrow bridge over the void to a newly revealed bright field of long grass into which they sink, only to be resurrected on film in their red dresses, movance & dramaturgy Chris Ryan; PACT Youth Theatre, Erskineville, Sydney, April 20-30 ing into the far green distance. As in Noh theatre, we have been entertained and then haunted by the dead–our hosts are ghosts, but have been released from their purgatory of drought and repression (with its child victims) into idyllic pastures.

Now you might not want to reflect too deeply on all of this: it’s iconic gothic Australia–Picnic at Hanging Rock, lost children, The Ghost Wife. The power of Politely Savage comes from its consummate realisation and the idiosyncratic way it deals with these familiar images, making them strange once more. It would be an astonishing achievement for any performance company let alone an emerging one. The performance is considered, carefully shaped and its personae and rhythms meticulously realised and sustained. The 4 young women (Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan and Katrina Gill) who comprise My Darling Patricia wrote, performed and designed the work, made and operated the puppets (with the assistance of Sam Routledge), built the set and collaborated with a team of artists. A blend of performative styles, puppetry, film and sound, the live-in set for the audience with its alarming changes of perspective, all suggest a confidence in practice and vision. As for the title, it’s just right, Politely Savage, well-mannered gothic–mythic rural darkness beneath suburban veneer.
Christopher Brown, The Black Swan of Trespass Christopher Brown, The Black Swan of Trespass
photo Brett Boardman
The Black Swan of Trespass

With a like sense of totality, vision and conviction, Melbourne’s Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre create an intimate and inverted but seductive world, and with Australian iconography again at the core. While My Darling Patricia built a house for us, Stuck Pigs have created a tiny old-fashioned stage world (red curtain, foot lights, pedal organ) for a small audience, using only half the space of Belvoir Street Downstairs. Such intimacy is just right for this fantasia in which writers Chris Kohn and Lally Katz present the creations of the anti-modernist hoaxers of the Ern Malley affair as cartoonishly real: the dying, mechanic poet Ern and his sister Ethel. Their grim, restrained lives and Ern’s bursts of creativity, pain and unrequited sexual desire are framed by the hoaxers’ narrative (Harold Stewart and James McCauley hilarious as a stuffed cat and rooster respectively), period songs from a fine crooner (Gavan O’Leary doubling as Ern’s mosquito antagonist, Anopheles) in a tux and a musician (director Chris Kohn) on organ and guitar. Christopher Brown as Ern is all quivering, junked-up vitality in a performance that is physically virtuosic and which, against the odds of the poetry that pours from him and the ruin that is his life, becomes increasingly real. So too does Ethel (Katie Keady) as she reveals her quiet possessiveness for Ern and her fear of the world. And the poetry makes better sense than its customary rejection as mere parody or the acclaim for its inadvertant modernist achievement by 2 significant poets. Ern’s naivety, his verbal fecundity, his delirium and his desires, the popular songs that haunt him, and a dark Albert Tucker milieu (especially in Princess [Jacklyn Bassaneli] the goddess-whore of Ern’s affections) churn and meld, vomiting up lines from his unconscious that the poet can barely grasp as his own.

The Black Swan of Trespass has enjoyed success in Melbourne (where it returns soon to a Malthouse season), New York (where it picked up a NY Fringe Festival prize and an invitation for the company to return) and now Sydney. Aside from wanting more integrated roles for the singer and musician, I found this an exhilarating work, both in its theatrical inventiveness and its creative response to the Ern Malley story.

The New Breed

The Melbourne based National Institute of Circus Arts made its first visit to Sydney with The New Breed, featuring final year students in a demonstration of individual and collective skills. The show was directed by Brazilian circus artist Rodrigo Matheus with choreography by Carla Candiotto and NICA’s Guang Rong Lu directing the circus routines. Loosely centred on the theme of miscommunication, especially when it comes to love, The New Breed entertained on many levels with a judicious distribution of expert solo routines and duets, verbal and sight gags and sudden surges of collective action keeping the show well-paced and rhythmically engaging. Hoops, stilts, bungy, trapeze and bicycle work kept soloists busy. A worker casually climbs chairs stacked by his mates indifferent to his spectacular balancing. Particular challenges came in the execution of routines while engaged in conversation (a xenophobic paranoid niggles at a slack wire artist) or while being verbally abused (a man balances virtuosically on bricks which are later snatched away by an angry woman). A woman reflects on love while adroitly manoeuvering a giant wheel, herself at its centre.

Some of the best and most confident collective work involved the tall poles distributed across the space. Performers matter-of-factly scaled them, sometimes travelling upside down, or leapt from one to another with simian ease, or kicked each other to the floor in climbing competitions to the strains of a grand waltz. One of the most effective scenes took the shape of a fight between 2 gangs. Tautly choreographed it involved dramatic gesturing and sudden flights through and over a fence, comic moments in which individuals find themselves on the wrong side, and bodies appearing to be magically sucked back through holes in the fence. Other crowd moments, like the repeated pedestrian routine where walkers took on ever stranger animal-like and insect shapes and movements, worked well, but not so the group juggling with clubs, which faltered badly and seemed to breed a wider nervousness early in the show.

The New Breed proved to be a promising advertisement for an important institution. Although unevenly scripted and acted (not all of these performers are going to excell here and nor should they have to), occasionally flawed in skill execution and sometimes too thematically loose, the show kept its audience eager for more and the performers were rightly rewarded with generous applause.

PVI: TTS: Australia, Tour of Duty

The Perth-based PVI new media arts collective focus their gleeful attention on the impact of the Australian government’s response to terrorism–it’s an excuse for an open assault on civil liberties. Despite the sombre mood induced by being lined up for TTS (Terrorist Training School), checked over and checked in at Performance Space prior to boarding the bus on a tour of Sydney’s terrorist target hotspots, the tone soon switches to madcap. We’re sworn in like fascistic Cubs and, once on the bus, we find our leering guide is masked, half-naked and has a severely limited vocabulary. In case of accident we are instructed to "wait until the smoke reaches your chest" and, helpfully, "not to fuck with daddy." The video entertainment in the tiny bus is a protracted performance art account of interchangeable terrorist/anti-terrorist training replete with brutal body scrubbing, explosives detailing and associated gruesome tales (our host cackles at an incineration story). For the duration of the trip we can’t escape the video. It’s torture, perhaps not PVI’s intention, but a pertinent thematic side-effect. However, we are gratefully distracted, if anxious for, the ‘red man’ in track suit and runners who pursues us across the city, catches up and crouches in a start position for the next leg of the journey. His is a surreal presence as we course through the city.

At Hyde Park, while watching balaclaved tai-chi practitioners and a police car cruising around the fountain, we are told that the park’s fig trees are highly flammable, and we are given our first ‘pop quiz’, which includes guessing what kind of burns you get from battery acid–2nd or 3rd degree? We indicate our answers with the provided card, but our success at getting the answer right is not confirmed, here or in most future tests. It’s that kind of educational trip.

Of the locations we visit, the Opera House is the most memorable on a couple of counts. First, the lights are out, like some war-time blackout; it’s one of those rare nights when no shows are on in the building. From the far side there’s a sudden burst of fireworks from some event or other. Then it’s dark again, Small groups of determined tourists and security guards with dogs look on as we follow the instructions from the headsets we’ve been given, creating a weird collective miming of bomb chucking at the Opera House. We’re not arrested. When we’re parked outside Centrepoint Tower, a passerby traps her heel in the pavement, creating a momentary 2-way diversion between performers and public. Snaps are taken. Beneath Sydney Harbour Bridge we are joined by a host of PVI extras who fling themselves to the ground, as if reacting to an explosion we have not sensed. But unlike the Opera House moment, we’re observers more than participants.

There’s more to this trip, a few more locations, more quizzes, and, at one stage, a tougher ("smiling is not permitted", "losing is hateful"), sonically-distorted guide who briefly ups the terror tension when he replaces our loopy host who goes off to send our protest postcards to the Telegraph. Looking back on it, TTS was impressive, a logistical and performative challenge involving all kinds of police, council and security negotiations and management of a cast of extras from the Sydney performance scene. There were striking images, like the red man and the initial impression of our tour guide, or the extras dotted across the already dramatic Sydney cityscape, or our own performance beneath the Opera House. Some more moments of heightened participation like this would have been welcome. What disappointed was the sense of a show petering out as we headed to the terminus. Our host seemed lost for words, there were no PVI staffers to receive us at Performance Space, the bar was closed, there was no dialogue, no post-mortem on the terror scenario we’d shared. And whatever happened to the mysterious red man? However, despite the desire from time to time to scream, "Is there a dramaturg on the bus?", it was a trip worth taking, not least for its mad mocking of the anti-terror regime. The accompanying TTS: Australia Critical Reader, edited by Bec Dean, proved a highly readable bedtime substitute in the absence of a de-briefing.


The Song Company’s latest Easter celebration is the first part of a projected trilogy, a music theatre creation that merges song with dance as singers and dancers move as one; interpolates the responsories of Gesualdo’s nocturnes for Passion week with Jeremiah’s Lamentations in plainchant; and gradually and ritually extinguishes the light. The audience crowds onto the Sydney Town Hall stage, witnessing voice and movement fill the vast dark space before them. But the core of the performance is intimate and sensual, the performers joining us on stage, their bodies entwining, forming a constant flow of images–sudden non-literal evocations of collapse, the wrack of pain, the lowering from the cross, the laying out of the dead and the pieta. Kate Champion wonderfully and distinctively through-choreographs the performance, ever attentive to the demands on the singers but integrating them seamlessly into it, their brave bodies raised, lowered and embraced; they, in turn, shaping the dancers. The singing is immaculate, refulgent with Gesualdo’s idiosyncratic blend of the chaste and the sensual, and like images are realised in the movement with the fall of hair, a look into the audience, the care that becomes caress. Song Company Easter events are now a significant part of the cultural calendar: the collaboration with Champion’s Force Majeure and the ambition of the trilogy are welcome for believers and atheists alike.

My Darling Patricia, Politely Savage, created by Halcyon Macleod, Clare Britton, Bridget Dolan, Katrina Gill; performer Cecily Hardy, puppeteers Bridget Dolan, Sam Routledge, additional puppet-making Bryony Anderson, lighting Richard Manner, sound Phil Downing, music Marcus Teague, Phil Downing, film Sam James, costumes Jade Simms, Kirsty Stringer, Tanya Aston

Stuck Pigs Squealing Theatre, The Black Swan of Trespass, writers Chris Kohn, Lally Katz, director-composer Chris Kohn, performers Christopher Brown, Katie Keady, Jacklyn Bassanelli, Gavan O’Leary, design Danielle Brustman, sound Jethro Woodward; B Sharp, Belvoir St Theatre Downstairs, April 14-May 1

NICA, The New Breed, The Studio, Sydney Opera House, May 4-15

PVI Collective, TTS: Australia, created by Kelli McCluskey, Steve Bull, Kate Neylon, Chris Williams, James McCluskey, Christina Lee, Jackson Castiglione with Jason Sweeney; Performance Space, Sydney, March 17-27

Song Company & Force Majeure, Tenebrae Trilogy–Part 1, musical director Roland Peelman, artistic director Kate Champion, lighting Sydney Bouhaniche; singers Clive Birch, Richard Black, Tobias Cole, Mark Donnelly, Ruth Kilpatrick, Nicole Thompson, dancers Tom Hodgson, Shaun Parker, Katerine Cogill; Sydney Town Hall, March 28

RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg. 32,

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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