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Amber McMahon, Cameron Goodall, Brett Stiller, Vs Macbeth, STC & The Border Project Amber McMahon, Cameron Goodall, Brett Stiller, Vs Macbeth, STC & The Border Project
photo David Wilson

vs macbeth

In Vs Macbeth, the given is William Shakespeare. And the new is danger. The Sydney Theatre Company’s Residents and Adelaide’s own Border Project teamed up for this new work that sought to reimagine Macbeth through the accidents that have made it the superstition-laden “Scottish play” that it is. The conceit is honourable. After all, the dangers of theatre can be very real. Performing it and witnessing it can be like walking along a cliff top backwards. Yet, this production never raises a solitary hair.

The problem is not in conception, but in realisation. From the outset, there is an undeniable whiff of Occupational Health and Safety, from the high visibility jackets to the yellow hazard tape. Yes, they mark the space as perilous, but they are also measures designed to dampen the unexpected and to ward off danger. If anything, they mark this theatre as eminently safe and flag in fluorescent clarity the fact that we should be prepared for things to go safely awry. When paintball guns are brought out for every death scene, so too is a cumbersome protective curtain of cyclone fencing meant only to protect the front row from pink shrapnel. Suspense? No, thanks.

The lack of tension in the space is only compounded by the bathos exerted by a series of interruptions—a missed entrance, a hurt hand. The sporadic nature of the interruptions suggests an unwillingness to commit wholly to the conceit, though it must be said that some of the actors commit themselves to the text beautifully. Indeed, it is the half-heartedness of the reimagining which is most problematic. The central melody here is still Shakespeare’s voice but the counterpoint is little more than an embarrassed suggestion of revolt, leaving even the erstwhile iconoclasts in the audience yearning for tights and doublets (the lycra-hungry had to head to Back to Back’s Food Court for their fix (RT 92, p42).

The Sound and the Fury, Elevator Repair Service The Sound and the Fury, Elevator Repair Service
photo Matt Nettheim
the sound and the fury

Fittingly, there wasn’t an inch of spandex to be seen at Elevator Repair Service’s staging of April Seventh, 1928, the first part of William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and The Fury. The company is familiar to these shores. Last year’s six-hour Gatz [RT91, p43], saw them transpose the entirety of The Great Gatsby to the stage. In that work, the dialectical frisson between the forms of prose and theatre was a little elusive—the vastness of Fitzgerald’s text was inflected by the joy of reading it rather than the thrall of deconstructing it.

In The Sound and The Fury, a newer work, there is a sense that director John Collins and his ensemble are developing their modus operandi. Again the text is read from the novel but this time not its entirety. Again the text swirls about in a non-literal mise en scène but seeks now to represent the world of the novel rather than an anonymous backdrop. And again the narrative voice propels the text forward along with dialogue but this time it is complemented by projected surtitles that swing our attention in a different way to the written quality of the language. These changes, along with the more stylistically demanding source, serve to make this a far more complex and concentrated production than the sprawling, durational transparency of Gatz.

Remarkably, despite its complexity, the sense of theatrical storytelling and its grounding in prose is rarely lost. The disorienting carousel of actors and characters manifests the chronological jumps of Faulkner’s prose but also produces a fractured perspective, a kaleidoscopic confusion of glimpses into the Compson household that are as rowdy and shabby as the characters themselves. Amongst this kinetic frenzy of staging and the odd Woosterish dance interlude, Collins has wisely left room for moments of transcendent stasis, when the text, projected, is allowed to speak for itself. Yet these moments work not only because of the strength of Faulkner’s writing but also because of the strength of the theatrical text around it—Hegelian synthesis at its finest.

Be Your Self, ADT Be Your Self, ADT
photo Chris Herzfeld
be your self

Across town at Her Majesty’s, Australian Dance Theatre was premiering its latest work, Be Your Self, an investigation of the body-mind compact inspired by the work of 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume. As director Garry Stewart notes in the program, Hume’s A Treatise on Human Nature suggests that humans are “nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.” This quotation is almost a pithy précis for the show itself.

It begins with a clinically white and vast stage. As a dancer slowly and meticulously begins to ripple movement up from the floor, through the feet and into the legs, another performer speaks an impressively detailed, thorough and ceaseless description of the neurobiological processes involved in what the dancer is doing. It is an inspired overture that deftly introduces the two disciplines that inform this work: science and dance. The former is taxonomical and exhaustive, the latter expressive and essential. If we were to think of them linguistically, science is the langue and dance the parole.

Unfortunately, the promise of the beginning is not maintained throughout. The piece itself sets out to be somehow analogous to the erratic nature of our human thoughts and physicality, but it feels instead like a physical illustration of the text we heard at the beginning without further development or consideration. The rhythms are punchy, the soundtrack is banging, the lights are in full wizardry mode but the result is a continuation of the clinically detached aesthetic of the start, without any of the discoveries that merit the scientific method, making for a surprisingly joyless experience.

Nevertheless, there is consolation to be had in the uber-athletic performances of the ensemble. The ADT dancers are surely some of the most muscular in the world and their broad shoulders and tendency towards explosive piston-like movement is displayed here to great effect. The set by New York architects Diller, Scofidio + Renfro is largely circumstantial until the very end, when a wide ramp set at 45 degrees is rolled to the front of the stage. As carefully designed animations are projected onto the surface of the ramp, isolated sections of bodies emerge through its weave, swimming in a protean liquid of colours and swirls. It is an assured finish and a striking image, but it is simply the final element in a “collection of different perceptions” that, combined, paint a very cold, distant and unwelcoming sense of what it is to be human.

Ngurrumilmarrmeriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers Ngurrumilmarrmeriyu (Wrong Skin), Chooky Dancers
photo Matt Nettheim
ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (wrong skin)

A much warmer, though hardly uncomplicated vision of humanity was to be had at Her Majesty’s a fortnight later with the premiere of Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), which teamed Elcho Islands’ Chooky Dancers with director Nigel Jamieson.

The Chooky Dancers, like Justin Bieber, Susan Boyle and the Back Dorm Boys, came to fame on YouTube. In a dark gym hall they danced to a remix of Zorba the Greek in a unique hybrid of dance vocabularies—part Yolngu, part hip hop, part disco, part Busby Berkeley. The cultural provenance of their performance is breathtakingly complicated, but unadulterated joy and immediacy are the key to its appeal. Existing in a geographically isolated community that, thanks to modern telecommunications, can consume an entire world of creative influences, the Chooky Dancers made manifest postmodern intertextuality not as an ironic exercise in form but as a fundamental expression of self.

Jamieson’s attempt to build on the Chookies’ self-expression and foster it into a piece of theatrical storytelling is an unenviably difficult but worthy undertaking. The director chooses to use the complex Yolngu moiety laws as the basis for a forbidden-love story, with overt references to West Side Story along the way. This gives him a straightforward narrative hook on which to hang various dance sequences and video montages of life on Elcho Island, but it also imposes a stifling rhythm on proceedings and creates a strange tension: are the performers co-creators or merely the subjects of the work? Occasionally, it even reveals the technical shortcomings of the dancers when they are required to step out of their own style. At other times though, the show is a brilliant populist work that sheds light on an oft-overlooked part of our country, and the charisma and pleasure of the performers is disarming and contagious. Indeed, whether it be the Zorba or a riff on a Bollywood dance scene, the most engaging moments are those in which the mechanics of the theatre step out of the way and allow the Chookies to simply do their thing.

2010 Adelaide Festival: Sydney Theatre Company & The Border Project, Vs Macbeth, writer William Shakespeare, director Sam Haren, designers Sam Haren, Matthew Kneale, costumes Mel Page, lighting Govin Ruben, composer David Heinrich, video Richard Back; Odeon Theatre, Feb 26-March 6; Elevator Repair Service, The Sound and The Fury (April Seventh, 1928), text William Faulkner, director John Collins, design David Zinn, lighting Mark Barton, sound Matt Tierney, costumes Colleen Werthmann, projections Eva von Schweinitz; Dunstan Playhouse, March 11-14; Australian Dance Theatre, Be Your Self, concept, direction, text Garry Stewart, choreography Garry Stewart and ADT, design Diller, Scofidio + Renfro (DS+R) Architects, lighting Damien Cooper, sound Brendan Woithe (colony nofi), video Brenton Kempster (ZuluMu Design + Post), costumes Gaelle Mellis; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Feb 20-28; Ngurrumilmarrmiriyu (Wrong Skin), writer-director-designer Nigel Jamieson, associate director, movement Gavin Robins, film & video design Scott Anderson, video producer Mic Gruchy, lighting Trudy Dalgleish, composers & sound designers Basil Hogios, David Page, performers The Chooky Dancers; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, March 11-14

See RT 96 for reviews of Ligeti’s Le Grande Macabre and the London Sinfonietta at the Adelaide Festival

RealTime issue #97 June-July 2010 pg. 4-5

© Carl Nilsson-Polias; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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