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Vincent Crowley, Jason Klarwein, A Thing Called Snake Vincent Crowley, Jason Klarwein, A Thing Called Snake
photo Mick Vowers
What is A Thing Called Snake? It’s “a raw mash-up of hip hop, pole dance, performance poetry, rock, punk & brutal burlesque”, according to the flyer—a description that confuses alliteration with literary style. I’m surprised no one came up with “The Bible meets Trainspotting”, or “based on an original idea by God.”

Stephen House’s script is a moral tale devoid of moralising. Its Biblical source is openly acknowledged with characters named Adam, Eve and Snake acting out the ancient allegory in a new setting. Gone is the Garden of Eden; in its place the urban jungle, or at least the squalor of inner-city bohemia. It is in part a love story with antecedents in the late 19th century. Adam and Eve have artistic ambitions—we have not moved far from the Romantic idea of the artist as outsider living precariously on the fringes of society. For all its contemporaneity it is a world that would have been recognisable to the Symbolists and Decadents. The story would presumably lose something if Adam wanted to be a plumber and Eve a hairdresser. No doubt both Adam and Eve fled from comfortable middle-class suburban homes in order to live dangerously. Desire becomes addiction when they are consumed by the desperate pursuit of “the Purple.” It’s a drug, but the name has a poetic ring (like ‘the azure’ of Mallarmé) that suggests a spiritual dimension to desire. That puts them in a line that includes Rimbaud and the Beats, but for Adam and Eve addiction has become destructive.

Enter the transvestite, Snake, with a promise of fulfilling desire at the cost of succumbing to temptation. It sounds familiar and predictable, but House gives this well-worn plot some original twists that lift it above the ordinary. His language ranges from the scatological to flights of poetry, ending with Adam and Eve achieving a kind of redemption through love. In fact the tender, hopeful ending is the biggest surprise of the evening.

For this production the Space has become a nightclub with burlesque acts, pole dancing, rock songs and live jazz. Nearly a century has passed since Marinetti exalted burlesque theatre (‘The Variety Theatre’, 1913) as the antidote to the stultifying conventions of traditional theatre, and it has not lost its appeal. The challenge to achieve real integration of such diverse material remains daunting. Geoff Cobham’s set is on 3 levels with pull-down blinds that also serve as screens for rear-projected video by Justin McGuinness. In front of this are two poles on which Eve (Alexandra Schepisi) and Snake (Vincent Crowley) perform, with Schepisi in particular demonstrating considerable prowess in this exotic form of dancing. Further forward is a small, raised stage surrounded by the audience, sitting at tables adorned with glowing coloured eggs and little plastic bags of a crystalline (but presumably legal) substance.

Schepisi is fragile and desperate but has inner strength that is essential to the lovers’ eventual redemption. Adam (Jason Klarwein) is the weaker of the two, perpetually in danger of falling off the edge. It is not surprising that he, rather than Eve, is the focus of the Snake’s manipulation. In spite of living on the street, both are curiously naïve and vulnerable. Klarwein and Schepisi give brave performances of a script that makes great demands on both of them with its explicit language, nudity and unflinching examination of painful emotions. Crowley is a commanding physical presence on stage as the cunning, worldly Snake.

Peter Nielsen’s sound design is restrained, but it is highly effective when combined with the on-stage playing of saxophonist Chris Soole. Soole’s diverse musical experience gives him a great expressive range and his contribution to the production is vital in providing continuity to the show. He becomes a musical Greek chorus commenting on the action and occasionally participating.

Director Ross Ganf has fashioned an ambitious production that at its best is provocative and disturbing. It could have been staged more simply, to equal or greater effect, but Ganf evidently believes that more really is more. On the other hand there’s no denying that he has elicited powerful and committed performances from his actors. He and writer Stephen House intend to jolt the audience and they have succeeded

InSpace, A Thing Called Snake, writer Stephen House, director Ross Ganf, designer Geoff Cobham, Space, Adelaide Festival Centre, Oct 13-22

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 44

© Stephen Whittington; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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