JOHN BAILEY SEES AUSTRALIAN CHOREOGRAPHER SHAUN PARKER’S FIRST MAJOR WORK, THIS SHOW IS ABOUT PEOPLE, BARRIE KOSKY’S ADAPTATION FOR THE STAGE OF EDGAR ALLEN POE’S HORROR CLASSIC, THE TELL-TALE HEART PERFORMED BY AUSTRIAN ACTOR AND SINGER MARTIN NIEDERMAIR, PROVOCATIVE PARIS-BASED CHOREOGRAPHER JEROME BEL’S THE SHOW MUST GO ON, AND MELBOURNE’S MIXED ABILITY PERFORMING GROUP RAWCUS PRESENTING THEIR NEW WORK, HUNGER, IN COLLABORATION WITH THE MELBOURNE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA.
Shaun Parker’s This Show is About People is a messy, incoherent furnace of competing forces. It is also entirely unique and utterly wonderful. It begins softly, a handful of ordinary-seeming people idling in a setting which could be a bus station waiting room, or an airport, or an underground bunker, or something other. But the moment a retiring man in vest and brown slacks suddenly bursts into an angelic medieval soprano and, somewhere else, a hulking boho-type begins dragging partially clad dancers from a vending machine, we know we’re in strange territory.
This aspect of the unexpected is what makes This Show such perfect arts festival fare. Throughout, its ability to provoke shock and wonder isn’t simply novelty for its own sake. It urges its audience to discover what exactly is happening here. Unlike much performance which revels in the play of ambiguity to hide an essential lack of meaning, This Show does promise something meaningful at its core—but you’ll have to work to find out what it is, and it’s likely that no two audience members will come away with the same conclusion.
Of course, the title gives a hint. But what about these people? There’s no narrative to the performance as such, which straddles contemporary dance (often heavily influenced by breakdancing with its floorwork, headspins and body rolls), spoken word, mime, theatre and more. The characters do maintain a certain consistency, but they’re not types—they’re fascinating assemblages of contradiction that develop in furtive, subtle ways, but are never pinned down in service of a grander function.
What does run throughout the piece, however, seems to be an interest in exploring the various ways people attempt to grapple with their own isolation in the universe. Philosophy and theology feature, as does war, work, art. A recurrent motif is the manipulation of one person by another—one dancer ‘paints’ another’s motion, for
nstance, her mimed brushstrokes mimicking a puppeteer’s control.
It doesn’t add up to any particular point, and even concepts such as war are injected with a giddy playfulness—mass combat played out by fingers engaging one another on the battlefield of a human body. At times beautiful and often gesturing toward the profound, This Show only stumbles during the occasional spoken section in which latent themes are rendered too starkly, losing their shimmering edge of transcendence by being addressed directly. At its best, it is during moments of silence or in the spaces between meanings that Parker’s work achieves the promise of something higher to which its subjects aspire.
Silence also opens Barrie Kosky’s masterful new work, The Tell-Tale Heart. It begins before the deep red curtain is raised, the house lights dimming at an agonising, nearly imperceptible rate and leaving nothing but a heart-shaped after image disappearing from our retinas. It happens slowly, too slowly, but time, in this work, is of the essence.
Poe’s original story is a tiny one, all the more effective for its brevity. The strangeness of the narrator’s voice is sustained throughout, but by denying the reader a lengthier engagement with his fevered mind, the central question he puts to us—am I mad?—cannot be easily answered. Certainly, everything from his murderous admissions to his spurious motivations would seem on the face of it the rantings of a psychopath, but Poe does not provide a satisfactory and rounded portrait of a killer. Instead, he limits his reader’s understanding of this fractured consciousness by restricting our view of events to the first person.
The story is simple. A man recounts a murder he has committed and the (perhaps hallucinated) thudding heart—“such as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton”—that leads to his discovery. Kosky has admirably embraced the story’s deceptively uncanny effect in two ways—firstly by deliberately, and at times frustratingly, foregrounding time and duration as a crucial element in theatre. This is a theatre of ellipses, in which the unsaid holds as much weight as the spoken word. Kosky stretches the short text over more than an hour, but holds the attention with an iron grip by imbuing each pause with much freight.
Secondly, director and performer offer a counterpoint to the drama of a mental insularity through the extremes of the human body. The madness of The Tell-Tale Heart’s narrator is accented by his logic, his attempts to explain his actions by pouring them into the empty moulds of rhetoric and rationality. The absurdity of this process is emphasised through the corporeal hysteria of performer Martin Niedermair’s body. As he confesses his crimes in pleading and serious tones, his initially respectable figure —impeccably suited and clean-shaven—quickly becomes a mass of symptoms, a pyrotechnically neurotic body at odds with itself. In this respect alone, Niedermair’s performance makes for compelling viewing, his body soon drenched in perspiration, spittle and froth spraying intermittently, and blood—of course, blood—rising to fill his quivering cheeks.
The piece ends as it began, in darkness and silence, though the roar of an appreciative audience quickly dispels this final moment of contemplation. Audiences, in Melbourne at least, usually find a way to fill the void.
Jerome Bel’s contribution to this year’s festival, The Show Must Go On, saw a similarly uneasy attitude towards silence—at a crucial point, Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” is played in darkness, but in keeping with the song’s lyrics is only heard during the chorus line that makes up its title. For the remainder of its duration, silence is all. Some audience members laugh, a few mutter to one another while others hush them loudly. Are we supposed to be silent? Why is this even happening?
We can’t look to Bel for answers, since he seems to have abdicated his role as creator. The work itself consists of a swag of popular songs, the chorus of each of which becomes a command for the 18 non-dancers who occasionally appear on stage. If there’s any actual choreography in play, it seems to be dictated by the songs themselves and interpreted by the performers alone. Bel even seems to clue us in on his unwillingness to take on the god-like role of artistic creator with the opening number from Hair, “Let the Sun Shine In.” But if there’s a god letting there be light here, he’s a retiring sort who rarely shows his hand again.
That so little actually occurs throughout the work’s running time seems important. The music is catchy and banal, from Queen to Edith Piaf, but each song provides only a single image, a punctum, and often offers nothing but a blank stage or a few bodies lying around. It is, for the most part, a show about negative space, about (I suppose) the vacuity of disposable popular music and the way untrained, spontaneous movement is as valid as the trained perfection of traditional choreography. But in so obviously refusing his audience an overarching authorial intent, Bel becomes a structuring absence, a choreographer who has simply made pedestrian, ordinary movement his thing.
This has done well to establish a fine reputation, and The Show Must Go On is certainly a lot of fun, but it doesn’t tread conceptual territory too distant from the blank canvases and silent scores of those working in other media half a century ago. If it does start a few audience scuffles, however, that might be something.
In a few short years, Melbourne company rawcus has produced a small body of work of an outstanding quality which, for me, ranks among the most exciting of the moment. The company is composed of performers with and without disabilities and creates non-narrative works which explore the experiences of its members. The last work, Not Dead Yet, was an incredibly moving investigation of death and its effects on the lives of performers. Hunger turns the spotlight onto an equally rich topic, love, and while lacking the sublime effect of the previous work nonetheless contains moments of unforgettable power.
The new work was developed in collaboration with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and features MSO musicians accompanying and frequently becoming a part of the action on stage. The music itself, by 19th century composers and Jethro Woodward, is gorgeous, but in conjunction with the performance becomes something more—a character itself.
Romantic imagery abounds, and much of the work plays with the tension between desire and the brute facts of life. For some this desire is to make a meaningful connection with another, for some it’s simply to be heard, and for others it’s hot sex or a caring boyfriend they’re longing for.
So far rawcus’ output has been small, but the company deserves far greater attention and support. Hunger, at least, is a festival event that could never be met by silence.
Melbourne International Arts Festival: This Show is About People, director, choreographer Shaun Parker, performers Anton, Matt Cornell, Marnie Palomares, Guy Ryan, Jarnie Birmingham, Tobias Coles, Sylvia Entcheva, Mara Kiek, Llew Kiek, musical directors Mara Kiek, Llew Kiek, designer Robert Cousins, sound design Peter Kennard, CUB Malthouse, Oct 11-14; The Tell-Tale Heart, director Barrie Kosky, performer Martin Niedermair, music played by Barrie Kosky, original music Barrie Kosky, dramaturgy Susanne Wolff, design Michael Zerz, Alfred Mayerhofer, set and costumes adapted by Anna Tregoan, lighting design adapted by Paul Jackson, Malthouse Theatre Workshop, Oct 10-20; The Show Must Go On, concept, direction Jérôme Bel, DJ Gilles, Gentner, Victorian Arts Centre, Oct 16-18; Hunger, devised by rawcus and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, director Kate Sulan, set & costume designer Emily Barrie, lighting Richard Vabre, sound designer Jethro Woodward, dramaturg Ingrid Voorendt, Arts house, Meat Market, Oct 22-24
RealTime issue #82 Dec-Jan 2007 pg. 8