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I Am a Miracle I Am a Miracle
photo Pia Johnson
Is Australian set design having its Brutalist moment? Recent work has embraced a visual ugliness that can be surprisingly confronting—not the comfortingly artful messiness of so many post-dramatic works, or the stark but sensible abstraction of minimalism. It’s a blunt, crude, almost amateurish look that’s all the more brave given the imperative towards ‘excellence’ that emphasises gloss and prettiness and the sense that however dark things may get, at least someone spent a lot of money on it.

MTC NEON: Dee & Cornelius, SHIT

Dee & Cornelius’ SHIT is a case in point. A large grey edifice is punctuated by three square portals. To one side lurks a battered convex mirror, the sort you’d find at the end of a neglected surburban train station. That’s it. The set is less imposing than mutely oppressive, offering so little of visual interest that its effectiveness only emerges slowly, sidewise. It’s not a character, as so many sets today are often described. It’s more like a faceless institution, unquestionable and uncaring, and is the perfect space in which to situate this drama.

SHIT opens with a monologue that elevates profanity to Beckett-like wordplay (I’ve never heard ‘fuck’ used as noun, verb and adjective in the same sentence). It’s an immediate reminder of Patricia Cornelius’ versatility as a writer, able to produce poetry from vulgar argots without sterilising their power along the way. It’s also a potent introduction to the three protagonists, a trio of women who are the subjects and agents of violence, who inhabit a cruel and complex social sphere but who will not be written off as either victim or monster.

The subtle choreography of the work rarely makes explicit their situation, but sequences are redolent of holding cells, line-ups, dingy flats, dark streets. A narrative of sorts emerges elliptically, hinting at their incarceration after a vicious attack on a stranger at night. They speak of their own histories, too, making clear that each has suffered domestic violence and sexual abuse as foster children and adults (although their ages could be anything from late teens to middle age or older).

But this isn’t a work that seeks to pathologise its central figures, to explain how they have become the people they are. Neither is it a mystery, teasing out an act of violence and its causes. These women are victims of their circumstances, but are absolutely in control of how they present themselves to us. They enact for each other the way they fake crying to fend off an attacker, until one’s performance is so unsettling that the others are left open-mouthed. They reveal suicide attempts but in a manner so histrionic it approaches clowning. They put a cap on a heartbreaking recollection with “yeah well boo hoo never mind.”

It may be the unaffected brilliance of so many aspects of this production—the keen writing, coy direction and profoundly arresting performances—that caused the glum set to stand out so oddly. But as it unfolded, it emerged that these figures were performing their lives against these unforgiving surrounds, in defiance of their environment. It all makes most set design look like dollhouse construction.

Malthouse: Declan Greene, I Am a Miracle

Playwright Declan Greene and director Matthew Lutton’s I Am a Miracle presents us with another apparently naive spectacle, here co-designed by Marg Horwell and lighting designer Paul Jackson—a grey square archway on a grey square revolve, strewn with a few items of clothing and some overturned chairs. Three figures in prison jumpsuits squat in isolation from one another. There are no secrets here, nothing of eventual significance we can wonder about as we wait for the action to start. Indeed, almost nothing of what follows can be guessed at, since it again all takes place almost in opposition to its surroundings.

There are two main movements to the work. In the first, an 18th century Dutch soldier is enlisted to fight against rebelling slaves in the colony of Surinam, but quickly finds himself caught among the atrocities doled out by both sides. Melita Jurisic’s performance of the role here is mostly oration, arms held low and movement kept to a sluggish pace; the frenzied horror of her character’s environment is mostly left to the mind of the viewer as a result. The work’s second extended sequence shifts to a contemporary and more naturalistic register, as a man and woman struggle with the unravelling of his mind. She may be his partner, or his carer or something else. The audience is kept as bewildered and unanchored as he is, and this effectively makes his final violent outburst something sympathetic, if not exactly cathartic.

These two movements are situated in a frame that makes reference to the 2012 execution of Marvin Lee Wilson, whose death was Greene’s inspiration. For brief moments the audience is addressed as Wilson himself, the circumstances of his upbringing and turn to crime recounted and the possibility of finding some kind of grace in his existence at least suggested. Finding the threads that connect the various parts of the work isn’t easy—a common theme may be slavery of both material and metaphysical sorts, or the operations of power on both a state and personal level. There is a sense of impotence, too, on the part of artists trying to make something of a terrible injustice, and despite hints of transcendence—a kind of mystical closing sequence, references to performers as angels, and operatic interludes—the work’s inability to enact a transfigurative salvation that will make everything, indeed anything okay, is what makes for a puzzling, dispiriting experience that nevertheless lingers.

Which seems perfectly appropriate. I Am a Miracle struck me as a spartan melodrama, a work of great emotion and song stripped back to cold outlines. The set’s dumb blankness echoes this—it offers no escape, no tools with which to engage the world. It is a prison cell, like the work, which struggles to escape itself, and which confesses the futility of its own project.

MTC NEON: Dee & Cornelius, SHIT, writer Patricia Cornelius, director Susie Dee, set and costume design Marg Horwell, Southbank Theatre, 25 June-5 July; Malthouse Theatre, I Am a Miracle, writer Declan Greene, director Matthew Lutton, set and costume design Marg Horwell, set design and lighting Paul Jackson; Malthouse, Melbourne 22 July-9 Aug

RealTime issue #128 Aug-Sept 2015 pg. 37

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

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