Watching Rawcus’s superb new production Small Odysseys was an oddly personal experience. For me, it was the psychological equivalent of that optical test in which, when a bright light is shone into your pupil, you see the veins of your own retina. It was as if I was watching a repatterning of some of my peak Melbourne experiences of the past few years: Ariane Mnouchkine’s Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), Bill Viola’s The Raft, Ron Mueck’s sculptures, the theatre of Romeo Castellucci and Jérôme Bel… even down to a recent book purchase, the haunting and comic urban miniatures of Slinkachu.
If ever there was an argument for the dependence of art on a rich soil, it’s this show. It demonstrates how artists are magpies, stealing one idea here, another there, and transforming them into something completely other. Works of collage or bricolage expose this process, but all artists do it. When the original inspirations remain undigested or misunderstood, it produces more-or-less successful pastiche, the merely derivative. The process has to be equal to its sources: when it is, it creates an artwork that absorbs those earlier influences into its own concerns, throwing their illuminations into unexpected contexts. In a sweet synchronicity, I recently quoted the great literary critic Viktor Shklovsky here on just this process: as he says, “Art cognizes by implementing old models in new ways and by creating new ones.”
This language of formal and emotional allusion is one of the ways that an artwork signals its ambitions, which is always a risky business: the bigger the ambitions, the bigger the scope for collapse. Small Odysseys makes its claims from its opening moments: this is epic work, seeking to give poetic shape to intimate, inarticulate moments of isolation and loneliness. Director Kate Sulan and her
collaborators walk the line to create a dream-like work of theatre which is as deeply felt as it is richly imagined.
Like Back to Back, Rawcus is a company of performers with and without disabilities which collaboratively generates self-devised works. The sense of ensemble is tangible in the rhythms of the work, which are (almost) unfaltering. Perhaps one sequence extends itself too far, but mostly it steps from transformation to transformation in ways that ignite continual slight surprise, loosing time from its moorings. The performance lasts almost exactly an hour, but the concentration it quite voluntarily elicits makes this hour seem both shorter and longer: it passes swiftly, but it seems to traverse whole worlds. Small Odysseys is huge, both literally – it uses the vast perspectives of the Meatmarket stage to full advantage – and emotionally.
Mnouchkine’s influence is perhaps the most explicit, and not only in its title: as in Le Dernier Caravansérail (Odyssées), designers Shaun Patten and Emily Barrie employ miniature sets on wheels which are swept over the wide spaces of the stage: small illuminated rooms, in which we witness private moments, or islands, complete with grass, that recall the islands Odysseus visited on his long journey home. As with Mnouchkine’s show, these miniature sets create a disconnect between the motion of the set and the performers which is oddly intensifying: more importantly, it generates an increasingly powerful transitoriness, a sense of how human beings exist in vast, indifferent space.
Mnouchkine used this convention to permit the swift telling of complex narratives; here, the fluidity of movement allows the performers to create poetic vignettes, images that invoke emotional states rather than stories. For some reason I can’t quite trace, another artist it recalled for me was Paul Klee: maybe it was a strong sense of dream, of incongruities that create their own overwhelming emotional logic.
Mnouchkine is only one of the influences employed here – there are many others. At one point the performers recreate Théodore Géricault’s famous Romantic painting, The Raft of the Medusa, the inspiration behind Bill Viola’s The Raft, engaging both of the earlier works. There is minimal text – we hear one side of phone conversations, a list of questions about what it means to be lost, one performer singing lustily from the back of the space. The stage is constantly animated with an opening and closing of perspectives that moves with a rhythm like breathing. Illusions are rapidly created and as rapidly dismantled: one moment it is a sea peopled by surreal, mythically resonant islands of humanity, the next a naked, harshly lit space in which the performers stand exposed and vulnerable before our gaze. There’s an honesty in this performance which allows it to escape the seductions of the merely pretty to explore a real beauty.
Richard Vabre’s superb lighting design is crucial: it can blank out the stage altogether by blinding us with a bank of yellow lights, give us a haunting glimpse of a ship with a lighted prow gliding far in the distance, or set us in a moment of complete everydayness by locating a performer in a corridor of light. And the emotional texture is extended by Jethro Woodward’s encompassing sound design, which reaches from lush lyric to harsh percussion.
Within this complex construction, the performers move like voyagers, always the central focus. It is probably closest to dance theatre – there is in fact is a powerful dance sequence, in which gestures are picked up and repeated by an increasing number of performers – but it’s not purely anything. What’s most interesting is a gathering sense of the individuals who made this piece, a sense of personal investment, that is released by the show’s formal shaping. (This is the quality that made me think of Jérôme Bel). Its lucid focus on human desire and longing makes Small Odysseys deeply moving. It’s probably one of the most beautiful works of theatre we’ll see this year.
Small Odysseys, directed by Kate Sulan. Sets and costumes by Emily Barrie, sculptures and design by Shaun Patten, composition and design by Jethro Woodward, lighting design by Richard Vabre. Musicians: Jethro Woodward, Ida Duelund Hansen. Dramaturge: Ingrid Voorendt. With Steven Ajzenberg, Clem Baada, Michael Buxton, Ray Drew, Rachel Edward, Nilgun Guven, Paul Matley, Mike McEvoy, Ryan New, Kerryn Poke, Louise Risiik, John Tonso, Danielle von der Borch. Rawcus @ Arts House Meatmarket until July 23.