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Zsuzsi Soboslay, Anthems and Angels Zsuzsi Soboslay, Anthems and Angels
photo Andrew Sikorski

As twilight deepens, a figure in top hat and skeleton suit sneaks in among the small crowd in the courtyard, then shakes a tambourine to command attention. A beady eye scans the assembly, and the reckoning begins. We’re kind to our animals, says Death, but what of others? “The world pushes against our shores, like an angry tide,” and what do we do to help those who are set adrift?

The opening of Zsuzsi Soboslay’s Anthems and Angels in the beautiful courtyard of Gorman Arts Centre in Canberra evokes the mediaeval play Everyman, in which Death is sent to fetch someone at random. Anyone will do, because Death is the great leveller. In the face of it, we are all Everyman, and whatever sense we have of ourselves and our lives melts away. There is nothing to come. We are only what we have been. “The summoning of Everyman” in the original morality play triggers a desperate appeal for companionship on the way. After he is deserted by friends, family and all the material goods he has called his own, Everyman reaches out to Good Deeds and a succession of personified moral virtues, who declare themselves too weak for the journey. All this is compressed into a brief prelude in Anthems and Angels, as Death fixes upon the chosen victim and ushers him, together with the audience, into the darkened theatre.

Anthems and Angels Anthems and Angels
photo Andrew Sikorski

Video screens display black and white images of ruins in a war zone, and a line of refugees progressing down a narrow path on a hillside. Where is this? When? Probably somewhere in Eastern Europe during the Second World War, but in Death’s endgame, time and place are sliding in all directions. As Everyman takes his place on a small vessel, steered across the high seas by a lone boatman, this is Anytime and Everywhere. The Angels of Earth, Air, Fire and Water speak over the sound of the waves.

But in a well-judged transition, Soboslay’s drama then has Everyman stepping off the boat and into the life of a new immigrant in a fully realised scene from 1950s Australia. He doesn’t speak the language and the figure of the boatman transforms into an established settler, who tries to teach him... but Death won’t leave him—or any of us—here for long. Everyman sleeps, and we re-enter the existential register as the exquisite melody of the 16th century Coventry Carol is sung, a capella.

The tides are rising again. There will be no control over what happens next in the blizzard of the world. Paper fortune cookies are distributed through the audience, containing messages that tell of a shared future in which we are all refugees. “I wish you a roof over your head.” “I wish that your family stays together.” “I wish you could come back.”

Anthems and Angels Anthems and Angels
photo Andrew Sikorski

As an audience, we belong to a culture that has lost touch with the language of metaphysics and mythology. When it comes to ‘the refugee problem’ our talk is politicised. It’s a battle of vested interests: those of politicians, ‘people smugglers,’ voters, the media. Dialogue on Twitter and comment lines in the 21st century do less to create meaningful communication than a shouting match across the garden fence did way back in the 20th. Theatre offers different languages. It connects with other zones in the human psyche, the atavistic parts of the brain that do not deal in categories, and where the mystery of being alive on this planet may be experienced in larger terms.

Anthems and Angels is an experimental work, the first of three in a series titled The Compassion Plays. It is, perhaps predominantly, an experiment in poetics. What kinds of tones and images speak to us across the deepening rift between cultures and nations? Soboslay herself has a natural gravitas, and holds the stage with consistent strength as the figure of Death. Co-performers Robin Davidson and C S Carroll have the versatility to work through a range of subtle tone changes. Video artist Sam James provides visual poetry and there is haunting live music from Benjamin Drury, Jess Green, Richard Johnson and Michael Misa.

Anthems and Angels: The Compassion Plays, direction, script Zsuzsi Soboslay, performers Robin Davidson, C S Carroll, Zsuzsi Soboslay, video artist Sam James, musicians Benjamin Drury, Jess Green, Richard Johnson, Michael Misa; Gorman Arts Centre, Canberra 2-4 Nov

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Jane Goodall; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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