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Life: no rehearsal

Keith Gallasch

Buddy Dannoun, Paul Barakat, The Pessoptimist Buddy Dannoun, Paul Barakat, The Pessoptimist
photo Naning
We spend much of our lives in rehearsal—in mimickry, game-playing, education and inner dialogues. Obsessive observation of other lives, whether real or imagined, is another form of rehearsal, a monitoring of the social world, its roles, plots and possibilities, and the theatre is just one place where we do it. For novelist Milan Kundera, however, there is no rehearsal, it’s all life: rehearsal is as unpredictable as life itself. The title of a show by visiting Norwegian dance duo Visibility Zero,’s only a rehearsal, shaped my thinking, with a bracing synchronicity, while watching other recent performances in Sydney.

The Pessoptimist

When it comes to prediction, optimists, pessimists and cynics alike have got it all worked out—there’s little need for rehearsal. In director Don Mamouney’s adapatation of a novel by Palestinian Emile Habiby (a former Knesset member and winner of the Israeli Literature Prize for the novel), Saeed from Haifa has played a carefully calculated role for much of his life. It’s about to be undone and he’s not prepared. Saeed’s betrayal of his people to the Israeli government is perpetrated with a kind of wide-eyed innocence—he’s like a modern Candide, joyous and certain. But the best of all possible worlds is only his own and no one else’s. Laughing, he can declare that his spying is “shameful work, but it’s a living”, and he lives without remorse. Even separation from his beloved Yuaad resolves to: “I ceased crying for Yuaad and began crying for myself.” Saeed’s manipulation of his masters and his own people eventually reaches its limits: the spy bosses are too demanding, his son turns to the cause Saeed has betrayed, and the stolen treasure he has secreted is beyond his reach. The world turns Kafka-esque, everywhere a prison, and ghosts are beginning to appear.

The Pessoptimist plays out against the several decades of Palestinian-Israeli conflict realised vividly as large video projections (Assad Abdi)—a relentless if eerily engaging evocation of war, displacement, torture and murder. Saeed’s small but brutal contribution is a microcosm of this bigger picture, revealing the absurdity of his condition—the transformation of a deep pessismism about human value into a joyful, showbizzy drive. The bizarre fusion of optimism and its opposite yields an unexpectedly delirious pragmatism with actor Paul Barakat excelling as Saeed, the expert playing direct to the audience: a fool for the times, but never divine. If it at times overwrought, over-acted and over-produced, The Pessoptimist is grimly engrossing and bleakly comic, never blinking at horror nor backing away from complexities beyond its protagonist’s grasp. If Saaed is the product of inexorable forces, a man trapped in the middle, the production nonetheless leaves us in no doubt that these forces are not equal and that Saeed is ultimately another victim of Israel.

There and Back

Life is much harder to rehearse if you can’t hear it. The Australian Theatre of the Deaf’s There and Back is a comprehensive account of the struggle to communicate, in part with the hearing world, but mostly within the deaf community. In a tale of 3 companions driving to a regional festival in New South Wales, tensions spring up not only about partnerships, sexuality and talent, but also about categories of deafness and systems of communication. Pivotal to Kate Nelson’s script is Evan’s withdrawal from the hearing world. He’s profoundly deaf but resolutely opposed to any remedy, hostile to his girlfriend’s part-hearing engagement with the world of the hearing, and cruelly antagonistic to Fiona, a country girl with a cochlear implant, to which Evan objects in particular, and her English accented Auslan. Evan wants one world, one community, freed from the complexities and dependencies demanded by the hearing world. Although a social comedy, and there’s a lot to laugh at and with, There and Back grows increasingly tense, painful and revelatory. Melissa’s belief in her singing ability, Fiona’s isolated life and Evan’s caustic dogmatism each signal withdrawals into certainty, but on the road and at the festival they are flung into the trial and error of the unexpected, rehearsing and enacting new lives.

For the audience, hearing or not, writer Nelson and director Caroline Conlon have dextrously layered levels of communication-speech, Auslan, mime and, with 3 supporting hearing actors, they have cleverly embedded onstage interpreters in a host of roles. If at times laboured and initially too expository, There and Back is a very strong showing in performance, direction and design from ATOD and Conlon, its new artistic director.

The Candy Butchers

Of circus we assume intensive rehearsal: the risks are greater than those in everyday life. A significant trope of postmodern physical theatre has been what goes wrong when the unexpected enters the well-rehearsed routine, with performer personae deranged or just not up to it. It’s demanding work, requiring that little extra skill, risk-taking and directorial inventiveness. The Candy Butchers takes that conceit and runs with it, lurching into the dark side of the circus and sideshow—tension, betrayal, unnecessary risk, disaster. While we are warmly welcomed with fairy floss, another vendor moves among us with a tray of forks, some of which are later impaled in a fellow performer. But for the most part The Candy Butchers only flirt with evil and accident, the personae of its performers barely sketched in, the plotting loose, although Jess Love is consistently nervy and bashful, and DJ Garner’s virtuosity keeps him well in focus. We are curiously denied the full force of the Azaria Universe personality. However, Candy Butchers definitely has its moments and some substantial ones at that, especially when a whole routine, stage apparatus and all, comes apocalyptically down.’s only a rehearsal

The first part of’s only a rehearsal places dancers Line Termoen and Dmitri Jourde in a tight cycle of movement that initially keeps them apart. They glide, they fall, rise up, become aware of each other, circle tenatively until their legs entwine, the faltering piano score quickening, and they collapse into one. But his grip and the application of his weight look oppressive and, later, even murderous with his hands around her neck. Is this a bad spouse scenario? Both perform solos, his furiously energetic, hers relatively languid. He runs at her; it looks like a tackle, but amazingly she absorbs it and the pair sink into sensual embrace. They’ll do it again and, again, the way his hands reach around her neck, the way he sits her on his lap, her weariness, suggest a trap. Or is it foreplay? She lifts him effortlessly before they embrace (she says, “kiss the eyes, but don’t let me steal your breath away”).

In a radical gear change, the performers tell in English and then, at length in French, the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses of the virgin goddess Artemis who wreaks vengeance on Acteaon, the hunter, after he sees her naked. Is what we first witnessed a modern variation on an ancient theme of male invasion and violation, but one more palpable and more dangerous than an intrusive gaze? The hunter is turned into a stag and eaten by his own dogs. The story is delivered (if untintelligibly for many), with vigour after which the couple return to their dancing selves, he to exhaustion after a barrage of break dancing inflected moves, a head spin and sudden hand stands. She sinks into her sinous self and reaches out...for him? Performed with power, subtlety and a spooky intimacy’s only a rehearsal is enjoyable dance theatre yielding moments of fine choreographic inventiveness and an intriguing theme. It also lives up to its title, it is a rehearsal, the rehearsal of myth, its tireless return and reinterpretation in the search for meaning. Only the word ‘only’ niggles; something more serious is afoot.

Sidetrack Performance Group, The Pessoptimist, directed and adapted by Don Mamouney from the novel by Emile Habiby; performers Paul Barakat, Buddy Dannoun, Amanda Mitchell, Hani Malick,Mariam Saab, Ben Tari, video montage Assad Abdi; Sidetrack Studio Theatre, Sydney, Oct 20-Nov 19

Australian Theatre of the Deaf, There and Back, writer Kate Nelson, director Caroline Conlon, performers Michael Ng, Neil Phipps, Medina Sumovic, Anna Hruby, Danni Wright, Gerry Shearim, dramaturg Donna Abela, sound design Blair Greenberg, design Jhulan Aupouri, Felicity Bailey, Maria Lentidoro, Grant Kay, lighting designer Inka Stafrace; Sidetrack Studio Theatre, Sydney, No 23-26

The Candy Butchers-A Circus Sweetmeat, creators, designers, performers Derek Ives, Azaria Universe, Jess Love, DJ Garner, show director Stephen Burton, lighting Marko Respondeck, audio stitching Lynton Carr; The Studio, Sydney Opera House, Nov 16-27

zero visibility corp.,’s only a rehearsal, choreographer Ina Christel Johannessen, dancers Line Termoen and Dmitri Jourde; Playhouse, Sydney Opera House, Nov 1-12

RealTime issue #70 Dec-Jan 2005 pg. 45

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

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