A fecund plague

Stephen Carleton

!Metro Arts’ Independents series began with a trial run in 2002 under Sue Benner’s pioneering artistic directorship. More an attempt to forge a hothouse environment for the city’s freelance performance practitioners than an effort to house any pre-existing overflow of activity, the series was an immediate success and has become a fixture in the Brisbane arts incubator’s annual programme. !Metro promotes itself as being “in the centre…on the edge”, and indeed it’s an edge the city desperately requires. Having championed physical theatre and circus longer than most Australian capitals, and having one of the nation’s most committed mainstage writers’ theatres in La Bôite, !Metro has stepped up to the plate and provided the forum for a genuine affordable fusion space for artists across the span of the city’s eclectic contemporary performance spectrum to collaborate, experiment and push parameters. It’s a space where artists—at various stages of their careers, and regardless of their area of performance specialisation—can try and fail, though in the case of the Restaged Histories Project’s latest offering, The Greater Plague, the signs of success are strong.

Set during a plague year—an iconic plague year, as it transpires—during the 17th century, writer-director Nic Dorward’s heterotopic exploration of disease takes place in a specialist London asylum in which denizens of the city unaffected by the epidemic are quarantined for 40 days of sustained physical deprivation and psychological abuse. The most immediately arresting image is Kieran Swann’s starkly ingenious design: !Metro’s inflexible black box is subverted by a white box within. The Plague House is represented as an antiseptic white puzzle box—a berko Rubik’s cube that shifts, slides and reveals slots that double as windows, doors, fire grilles, escape hatches, peepholes and gaudy picture frames.

Two sisters, Lettice (Morgan French) and Edith (Saskia Levy) stumble in through the floor, having broken in through the neighbour’s cellar. They are escaping a domestic abuse nightmare in Paris, and inadvertently find themselves trapped in an exponentially more ghoulish world within the asylum’s macabre confines. Theophilia (Emily Tomlins) is about to give birth, and faces an extended 40-day incarceration in the hellhole if the baby survives. The deranged Nurse (Louise Brehmer) and Bearer (Jonathan Brand) prey on the inmates in fiendish (and, in the latter’s case, necrophiliac) delight. All the cast are excellent.

Dorward’s idiosyncratic directing combines improvisation and extended physical scenes as well as robust adherence to immaculately researched and intellectually rigorous dialogue that makes no apologies for its historical fetishes and predilections. Indeed, the whole piece is refreshing for its refusal to kowtow to lowest common denominator audience expectations, without ever lapsing into prosaic self-indulgence or obscure self-referentiality. It is not a naturalistic narrative. The audience is required to work, to use its imagination to piece together the individual character back-stories (told in impro-styled comic flashback).

There is a feast of physical, visual and linguistic images woven together and driven along by an exceptional sound design by Luke Lickford. There is a renegade bonhomie in the ostensibly mordant study of incarceration that augurs extremely well here, not just for the careers of the team of emerging artists involved, but also perhaps for the future of independent contemporary performance in Brisbane.

The Greater Plague, writer-director Nic Dorward, designer Kieran Swann, sound Luke Lickford; producers Restaged Histories Project and !Metro Arts Independents!; Metro Arts, Brisbane, Sept 7-24

RealTime issue #69 Oct-Nov 2005 pg. 36

© Stephen Carleton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2005
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