Children overboard: outrage & performance

Keith Gallasch

version 1.0, CMI

version 1.0, CMI

version 1.0, CMI

Performance is everywhere, not just on stages and screens. Erving Goffman’s descriptions of the forms and strategies of everyday behaviour gained great popularity in the 1970s, prophetically prefacing the obsession with reality TV—some of it unfolding with a realtime liesureliness that makes performance art look positively speedy. Verbatim Theatre has also made a comeback, for example in Company B’s Run Rabbit Run by Alana Valentine (about the rescue of the South Sydney football team from corporate erasure), in Nick Marchand’s work with playwrights in the Sydney Theatre Company’s Blueprints program and in numerous plays across Australia about asylum seekers. In everything from joke-telling, to the patternings of body language and the overt rituals of religion, the courtroom and parliament, there is an abundance of raw material for the artist to distil into…something else. So why not a senate inquiry?

version 1.0’s CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) is not verbatim theatre but it is a performance devised from the transcripts of the Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the “children overboard” scandal in which, says the company, “6 senators wrestle with their wills, their words, their politics and each other.” Doubtless that means real wrestling and real politics if the company’s first work, the wickedly funny, sometimes searing Second last Supper, a reverie on universal corporatisation, is anything to go by. The text is drawn from the inquiry and is matched, says version 1.0, with a movement score “drawing on physical performance disciplines and sports training to express a bodily, visceral outrage.”

Producer David Williams is critical of the inquiry “for not aiming to uncover the truth, but simply appearing to be doing so, stalling for time, going through the motions. In CMI we seek exposure: to read between the lines, to air the thoughts left in the dark, to seek the faces behind the masks, to hear the questions never said aloud. We ask where is the place for truth in this inquiry? What are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves through this inquiry? This inquiry talks the talk that numbs the intellect and paralyses the body’s capacity for outrage. CMI is a public act of outrage.”

The company has distilled 2,200 pages of the inquiry transcript successively down to 250 and then 50 pages in editing and workshop sessions. They have also added some words of their own, for example some imagined thoughts from a “lost” senator who never turned up to the inquiry and a “Ruddockesque telephone call.” Williams says the performers are interested in the verbatim approach, but didn’t want to restrict themselves: “We’re not quite that pure and we like to get lost, just like the senators did, starting at 9 in the morning and sometimes finishing [after midnight]and loopy by that time, throwing in stupid jokes…” Williams says there’ll be monologue, for example a bit of Captain Norman Banks’ 30 minute testimony, which never gets round to the children overboard issue. As in the company’s Second last Supper dialogue will be layered with action taking place elsewhere on stage.

In a company with a mixed background of acting and body-based aesthetics, says Williams, there will be a range of approaches to the language of the inquiry, some literal and some quite lateral, ideal ways it would seem to portray contradictions, unmask euphemisms and undo propaganda.

There’ll also be a test for truth. As part of the performance, version 1.0 are using multi-channel video and the Ex-Sense lie-detection software package to analyse the emotional stress in the voice of subjects, displaying continually updated reports on their believability. This is in collaboration with Perth’s pvi collective who have made a performative speciality out of the methods and politics of surveillance.

So what did the language of the inquiry reveal? More of the abstraction and evasion we all encountered in the wake of the “children overboard” incident. Williams says refugees were spoken of not as individuals but only in terms of race or acronyms. The report opens with 3 pages of these including SUNC (suspected unauthorised non-citizen), PIIs (potential illegal immigrants) and UAs (unauthorised arrivals). Half of the people called before the inquiry were from the military and used to thinking this way. More significant, says Williams, “was the Liberal Party’s clear line of attack, bringing volumes of information to cast the asylum seekers in as bad a light as possible, as evil, as engaged in child abuse.” Labor, he said, didn’t seem to have any equivalent strategic approach.

In the end, what was the truth? “Only what we knew already. There was no smoking gun to prove the Howard government as evil as we like to think it.” Howard’s language had already achieved such currency and seductiveness that “it appeared to fit with appearances and our desire to believe ourselves good people”, whatever the evidence to the contrary from the inquiry about misinformation and the origins of published images. The inquiry could do little to break the complicity between a government and its people. Williams thinks that the fact that there was an inquiry was enough to satisfy many people, with “the appearance of democracy at work, justifying the political process.”

Therefore, says Williams, version 1.0 has to propose a problem, for itself and its audience—how to “criticise ourselves and explore our outrage and what paralyzes us—not that self-loathing is necessary.”

But to get at the truth, at what went unsaid, at the appalling complicity that has made asylum seekers’ lives so miserable for so long under successive Australian governments, that is the real task. Much of the theatre that has emerged since the Tampa incident has been strongly felt, but has been mostly a rallying call, if a necessary one, to the converted. Ben Ellis’ Some People for the Sydney Theatre Company promised an undoing of the language that has so knotted Australia into acceptance of Howard dogma, but despite moments of real insight—the everyday turned surreally political—it went down the predictable path of Australian family pathology. Perhaps it’s at the physical-psychological juncture that version 1.0 will hit the personal-political target they are aiming at. version 1.0’s approach can be savagely satirical as well as yielding disturbing imagery. Williams predicts that CMI will be “more anarchic (performatively) and less anarchic (more serious) than Second last Supper.”

In the weeks ahead, as the company completes the work, the big challenge”, Williams says, “will be how to deal, in the final act of the performance, with the drowning of 352 asylum seekers and the question of whether the Australian government was in any way responsible.”

version 1.0 in association with Department of Performance Studies, Sydney University, CMI, performer/devisors Danielle Antaki, Stephen Klinder, Nikki Heywood, Christopher Ryan, David Williams, producer David Williams, dramaturgy Paul Dwyer, Yana Taylor, lighting Simon Wise, video and design Samuel James, sound Jason Sweeney, lie-detection software Kelli McCluskey, Steve Bull (pvi collective); Performance Space, March 24-April 11, bookings 02 9698 7235

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 40-

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

1 February 2004