Adelaide Festival 2004: And on the Thousandth Night…

Keith Gallasch

Forced Entertainment
Royalty Theatre, March 13

And on the Thousandth Night was a radically different experience from First Night. The company appear in cardboard crowns, red gowns with ordinary clothes beneath and bare feet. An upstage table holds food and drink supplies which they work through over the 6 hours, saving the beer to the last hour. The performers are affable, address us directly in a conversational tone from a row of chairs across the front of the stage and come and go taking the chairs with them. Every utterance begins, “Once upon a time there was…” and over the 6 hours a feast of tales is told but none completed: someone will interrupt with another tale, either picking up on the one just told, or another from earlier, or it’s something apparently brand new. Sometimes the interruption is infuriating, often it doesn’t matter, we know the tale or we know where it’s going: if it was any longer it wouldn’t be funny or significant. Occasionally a tale-teller is left helpless, no one interrupts and they have to string out their story until rescued. The result is a wealth of tales familiar, deviant, magical and banal, a kind of living structuralist encyclopoedia of story-telling. From the well of a few deep structure formulae come an astonishing plethora of stories.

Series and subsets of tales emerge drawing on classic fairytales, myths, famous plots (recurrent stories about a father and three daughters kick off with a version of King Lear), popular culture (The Fly and The Hulk find their way into the weave) and Kylie (“Once there was a perfect little princess with a pert little bott”), and, not least, jokes. Classic tales are given a modern edge—of the Gingerbread Boy bullies say, “that little baked kid, we’ll eat him”—and others are told quite laterally—7 un-unionised miners replace the 7 dwarfs. One teller’s version of Hansel and Gretel is usurped by another: “Once upon a time there was a housing inspector who came upon a dodgy house made of chocolate and sweets…” One performer particularly committed to incisive brevity began: “Once upon a time there was a country where people were made out of meat…” Later and more surreally, “…there was city where there were no people, only juice.” From the same speaker in the unfolding of a series on sex madness, a story about a man in bed with 4 women: “and as often is the case, the man was crap. He had a big erection but was not generous with it.” Sex mad scenes take place in schools, delicatessens, old folks’ homes and the theatre, sucking the Lear tale into the vortex as The Royal Blow Job. A later series darkens the mood in longer tales about parents, children and computer pornography. A small nation-big nation love story could equally be about Australia and the USA as about Blair and Bush: “a special relationship, but only kind of one way.”

Improvisation and the informality of the performance meant that we witnessed and shared the performers’ surprise at others’ inventiveness, the irritation at interruption, moments of desperation and plenty of solo and collective smiling, laughter and corpsing (a sure cue to be interrupted). An ah-hah gasp from the auditorium mid-story immediately prompted an interruption: “Once upon a time there was a woman in a theatre who was surprised to hear her own story.”

Recurrence of themes and story types led to a kind of collective hysteria over the 6 hours. You could leave the show at any time for food, rest or another show, but the longer you were away the further out of the loop you felt and the more technical the appreciation became when you returned, as opposed to shared delirium as waves of stories broke over each other. In the last hour there’s a return to fairy tales, a string of love stories (about 2 words, 2 turds, 2 birds), bizzare versions of creation myths (“concentrated nothing”, “the world is a snow dome”) and an increasing conflation of stories feeding off themselves and each other as thieves sell second hand stories and an evocation of the theatre we shared (“a very dark room, breathing, creaking…alive and dead”) and, finally (from a prepared text apparently), “a mouth that wouldn’t stop talking…and a pulse that wouldn’t stop beating.”

In this memorable show there were many amazing stories, regardless of their incomplete nature, and they were being recalled and told again as the audience wandered from the theatre and gathered in the street and for days after.

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 29-

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2004