Bodies at work

Keith Gallasch

Chris Murphy, Dominique Sweeney, Innana's Descent

Chris Murphy, Dominique Sweeney, Innana’s Descent

Chris Murphy, Dominique Sweeney, Innana’s Descent

Innana’s Descent

There’s something eerily right about being taken beneath a Masonic Centre (appropriately a bunker of a building in Sydney’s CBD concealing sanitised ancient male rituals) to see a performance about a Sumerian goddess of about 5,000 years ago whose various manifestations (Ishtar, Astarte, Isis etc) place her somewhere in the long transition from matriarchal to patriarchal cultures. Her moon goddess journey into the underworld to confront the dark self of winter and death (her sister Ereshkigal) before emerging to regenerate the world requires her, as ruler of the solar year, to sacrifice a male, the shepherd king, the man-bull Dumuzi (from an earlier time when shepherds could become kings and kings were ritually slaughtered). There’s a curious pleasure in seeing this ritual enacted, especially when we are cast in the role of tourists visiting an archaelogical dig in an underground carpark. Here we are transformed from observers into witnesses as the performance slips from site tour (with lectures and projections) into ritual, sometimes hovering between as the workers in the dig appear as gods from the waist up, their grubby shorts and boots below, and battered car hubcaps and number plates are labelled and held aloft like sacred icons.

Our progress is brisk as we move into the harsh lights and dusty hubub of the wonderfully constructed site (designer Joey Ruigrok, sculptor/prop maker Shigeyuki Ueno, lighting Richard Montgomery, sound/music Felicity Fox, Gene Gill) with its wall charts, projections, table displays, industrial rumble and rattle, the manufacturing of objects (for the tourist trade?) and the droll chief archaeologist (Katia Molino) who will be our guide. She’s a likeable eccentric in love with the erotics of the dig (“excruciating as a slow striptease”) and divulging some of her own rituals—she collects the underpants of 147 men she’s slept with to date as well as purchasing round glass paperweights that recall their testicles). She also explains the fragmentary nature of her discoveries and of the goddess narratives, and muses, like any good postmodernist, ”Do you take fragments for what they are?” However, the tensions rife among the workers on the dig, without signal, become those between the gods they are symbolically (and later literally) exhuming. One of them (Chris Murphy) becomes Innana in a serio-comic boots’n’all expression of desire: “Who will plough my vulva, who will water my lettuce?”

From then on the sheer strangeness of this ritual world enmeshes us as we are marshalled about the site, watching Innana in a small wagon sharing wine with her increasingly drunk Father-King (Michael Cohen) and divesting him of his glittering royal apparel from top to bottom (including, of course, his worker’s underpants). After Innana ropes in the man-bull of her dreams (Dominique Sweeney), 2 thuggish and brutally competitive guardians (Cohen and Carlos Gomes) drive a path through the audience, divesting her of those same objects as she is drawn to a opening in the site wall, a projection that transforms into a spiralling journey into the vulva-underworld of her fearsome sister (Yumi Umiumare, magnicifently poised, cackling gutturally). Innana disappears. We are lead deeper into the underworld, the next floor down, and seated in a circle for a demonstration. The archaelogist makes a small cut in the mummified goddess, unaware that the demonic sister hangs below on the same gurney. A hand slips out of the cloth, Innana emerges. However, Ereshkigal will not release her without sacrfice. Innana seductively traps the horned Dumuzi (he’s enjoying a beer and a bit of country music) as the line between the fantastic and the real again emerges. Innana’s pudendum flowers with lettuce, a moment equally serious, comic and other. Life is restored. The archaeologist worships her alabaster statuette of Innana, a private ritual. The big, satisfied audience heads for the overworld, chatting, bemused, enthused. We’ve been somewhere deep in our white psycho-cultural history with its perplexing middle eastern origins, heading home to dig out our copies of Totem and Taboo, The White Goddess and those feminist histories of matriarchy.

It’s been a long time between shows, and earlier works were flawed despite some impressive moments. Theatre Kantanka prove themselves with Innana’s Descent. The structure of the work, the physically brave, focused performances, the totality of invention in design and audience management reveal a maturing vision. There are still challenges: the dialogue is simply not of the same calibre as the rest of the work and the realisation of the one conventional character, the archaelogist, seems incomplete. Katia Molino’s performance, as always, is a fine one, however her relationship with Innana as scripted seems more ironic than intimate, just as her private rituals seem trivial beside the cultural and psychological riches of the Innana stories. The audience is immersed in this other world, but the archaeologist seems largely immune to it and what it might mean for her. Having established her preoccupations so clearly it seems a pity that they have nowhere to go. I craved an encounter between the archaeogist and Innana, some more substantial act of identification. In another, imagined version of Innana’s Descent, the archaelogist, not one of the site workers, becomes Innana, at least somewhere in the unfolding ritual. Complaints aside, this was an enjoyable, sometimes disturbing experience, a work that demands to be kept in repertoire.

Masonic Centre, Sydney, July 4-20

Four on the Floor

In Legs on the Wall’s latest and invaluable ongoing collection of new works by company associates and guests, it’s Alexandra Harrison as performer and director in Together and Diffusion who impresses with a challenging presence and some bold inventiveness. Like Sentimental Reason (Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters) from last year’s B Sharp program and Brendan Shelper and Tina McErvale’s Bumping Heads (Next Wave 2002), Together (director Rowan Machingo, creator-performers Harrison & Machingo) displays a scintillating choreographic sensibility fusing dance and physical theatre in a tense couple scenario of power shifts and in-and-out-of-sync emotional phases. In Diffusion, although rather slightly resolved, Harrison packs the performance with physical distress, erotic manoeuvres and a deft use of the vertical in the tiny theatre.

B Sharp 2002, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, May 24 -June 16.

Pussy Boy

Christine Evans’ fable about a boy who wants to fly but whose only flights in the end will be those of fancy, even lunacy, is tautly constructed, ably directed (Chris Mead) with an eye to suspense and clarity, and finely performed. Ben Fountain as the boy is quietly curious. His tyrannical father (Chris Ryan) just as quietly imposes on the boy his misanthropy (built on mysogyny) via physical threat (from the same hammer and nails he wants his son to master) and example—casting out the old woman (Clare Grant) who lives with just too many dogs in the same building. A policeman and a policewoman, a kind of bitter-sweet chorus, watch the action like indifferent minor gods who might occasionally empathise but know they have no real power and who are more interested in each other in the end. Ryan and Grant, both from Sydney’s contemporary performance scene, bring distinctive presence to the work, a stillness and restraint that suits the poetry of Evans’ text and the intimacy of Belvoir St Downstairs. The live musical score for cello is fine in itself but too heavily underlines the misery of the tale. Evans (My Vicious Angel), now writing from the US, again proves herself a master of construction and spare, evocative dialogue in a quasi-fantastic setting.

Kicking & Screaming New Writing Theatre, B Sharp, Downstairs Belvoir St Theatre, June 20-July 7.

The Waiting Room

Works like this are important at a moment when Australia is evincing an insular meanness on the one hand and global gung-hoism on the other in an ugly allegiance with the USA. For the converted, who know these issues only too well, the work is a theatre experience that confirms convictions but, given the distance the government has calculatedly put between us and refugees, also puts emotional flesh on the bones of abstraction. The Waiting Room, from Sydney’s Platform 27 (director Richard Lagarto), but premiering in Melbourne in collaboration with the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre, is a gruelling experience on at least 2 counts. The first is its explicit enactment of life in one of Australia’s detention centres. A large projection screen, a clutter of video monitors (multimedia by Rolando Ramos) at floor level and a large, ominous mobile, transformable frame (set design Sam Hawker) collectively evoke a concentration camp in the Australian outback, aided by Liberty Kerr’s melancholy score, played live, and Stephen Hawker’s shadowy nightmare lighting. The screens also carry images evocative of harsh journeys paralleling the story-telling of the performers as refugees, as well as the ludicrous Australian Government video with its shots of dangerous fauna aimed at deterring asylum seekers. The construction of The Waiting Room epically alternates the Kafkaesque tale of a distressed traveller, personal stories of refugee flight and dramatisations of escalating detention centre cruelty with moments of pure agitprop satire of government and media. All of this is admirably performed, sensitively and often with physical and vocal verve by Wahibi Moussa, Steve Mouzakis and Valerie Berry multiplying themelves into a host of characters ranging from depressed children to John Howard. The second count on which this show is gruelling is overkill. The understandable anger that drives The Waiting Room constantly threatens to overwhelm it, to suck everything into an agitprop vortex—everything is known, worked out, pre-judged, performers become virtuosic machines, their personalities dissipated, some scenes are hectoringly simplistic, a number feel redundant. There is nothing here that cannot be addressed by judicious editing, some opening out of the best material and a fresh look at some of the scripting (by many hands) now that the play has had its first run.

The Waiting Room is a confident step forward for Platform 27. Trades Hall, Melbourne, May 15-June 1

RealTime issue #50 Aug-Sept 2002 pg. 36

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

1 August 2002