cruel past, uncertain future

keith gallasch: stalker, encoded; version 1.0, ilbijerri, beautiful one day

Lee-Anne Litton, Rick Everett, Encoded, Stalker

Lee-Anne Litton, Rick Everett, Encoded, Stalker

Lee-Anne Litton, Rick Everett, Encoded, Stalker


Encoded delights in the thrills provided by immersive new technologies while angsting over their dehumanising potential. Beautiful One Day conveys the emotional struggle to accept what was once a prison as now home if still oppressive, with the white viewer inevitably feeling complicit in that oppression.

stalker, encoded

In near dark someone, possibly winged, slowly turns toward us, small red-light eyes, a skirt hooping out slightly from the body. Nearby stands another ‘alien,’ skirtless, presumably male. They appear to have aerials. Their bodies are illuminated with Rorschach patterns, perhaps evoking organs, but green. The couple shimmer, beautiful, insect-like, but hi-tech; cyborgs?

A universe opens behind them, stars flowing across a vast Carriageworks wall but, less than cosmic, they soon prove to be part of the grid of a huge abstracted building which will expand, contract and slide vertiginously up and down like a monstrous elevator. Again, something manufactured, eerie. The creatures exit.

Human figures, male and female swirl, leap at the massive projection, conjuring tumbling flight, but then fall into pretty conventional contemporary dance before magically melting into a mass of stars.

The early promise of Encoded soon drifts away into alternations between aerial and dance sequences, with the former providing some fascination moment by moment but without cumulative weight. Bodies hang upside down or mutate into Y-shapes, fly out from the wall towards us, pair off and execute exacting ‘wall dances,’ or form threesome totems, almost alien, but still certainly human. In the end, we are alone with one of the creatures that initially confronted us with its worrying sense of difference—save the oddly insistent gender distinction.

Encoded addresses contemporary anxieties about the prospect of losing “the human in the midst of the pixels” (program note). To do this it celebrates the human capacity to defy gravity by dancing and swinging on rope while exploiting digital technologies to suggest even greater capacities. The result is at times spectacularly cinematic, reinforced by over-emphatic music, but Encoded lacks the cohesion and escalating dynamism witnessed in Stalker’s previous work MirrorMirror (RT94,p36), part of director David Clarkson’s continuing exploration of identity across time and space. The initial tensions and sense of excitement are soon lost. It’s disappointing too that the beautifully enigmatic creatures from the future remain merely emblematic—there is no interaction with the humans, quite unlike that seen between robots and dancers in say, Garry Stewart’s Devolution (ADT, 2006, RT71, p2). In that work hybridised humans sprouted horrifying robotic prostheses. Encoded is, with its almost motionless aliens, a relatively contemplative work in which humans and new creatures neither interact nor morph. Its characters appear to be less than agents in their universe and more the tools of technology, director and choreographer. The digital art team working on the production, however, have made something visually special of Encoded.

beautiful one day

Rachael Maza, Erykah Kyle (screen), Beautiful One Day, Belvoir, version 1.0 & Ilbijerri Theatre Company

Rachael Maza, Erykah Kyle (screen), Beautiful One Day, Belvoir, version 1.0 & Ilbijerri Theatre Company

Rachael Maza, Erykah Kyle (screen), Beautiful One Day, Belvoir, version 1.0 & Ilbijerri Theatre Company

I’ve read the news and the book (Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island, 2009), seen the documentary (The Tall Man, director Tony Krawitz, 2011) and the four-channel video installation (Tall Man, Vernon Ah Kee, 2011) and now the stage play, Beautiful One Day. The tale of Palm Island exile, discrimination, murder, riot and justice denied is a scar on Queensland’s integrity, but sadly emblematic of national injustices. Each encounter with the story adds more disturbing details and discomfiting perspectives. This account by version 1.0 and Ilbijerri digs into the island’s history and adds a heightened Indigenous perspective side by side with verbatim recreations of pivotal moments in the unfolding tragedy.

The telling of the earlier history of Palm Island casually conjures key personalities, recites cruel, petty rules (courting only 4-5pm, “no laughing,” no bikes…) in what was essentially a slave colony. It recalls public punishments like head shaving, protests and a strike for wages, meat and freedom of speech, and its brutal consequences. 1960 documentary footage (projected in fragments on the semicircular screen that frames the stage) depicts then famous Australian musician Shirley Abicair declaring the island “the site of a bold experiment” to lift up its people while the sound score thumps ominously and whistling mocks this nonsense. The years roll on. In 1986 the inhabitants are given Deeds of Grant to the island, but infrastructure is removed. Then it’s 2004, and Cameron Doomadgee falls victim to Senior Constable Christopher Hurley. Rachael Maza delineates Hurley’s good cop, bad cop virtues and failings and six versions of Doomadgee’s ‘fall’ are mechanically, and chillingly, re-enacted across crime scene floor markings and architectural projections. This sequence and the ensuing court room encounters provide some of the strongest scenes in Beautiful One Day.

Subsequently the production loses focus and momentum, ambling to a conclusion that nonetheless brings home the painful contradictions the inhabitants of Palm Island must live out: the island is not their country, but it has been home for generations; they love it, but it is fundamentally oppressive. We see their faces, projected before us, hear their words, their frustration that a ‘vision plan’ for the island remains unrealised and that, worse, the Act that has governed their lives for so long is implicitly still there. The mix of despair and optimism, however, does not read like contradiction, rather as well-worn stoicism.

Version 1.0 and Ilbijerri have taken on a big subject (a consistent mark of both companies), as theatre must, engaged with it directly and inventively with strong performances on designer Ruby Langton-Batty’s mobile, grassy floating floor before a screen aptly evocative of museum dioramas. One surprising misstep came in the form of the reproduction of the exchange between the embattled police on the ground in Palm Island during the riot and those off-shore coming in with reinforcements. Two performers sit before music stands and deliver the lines deadpan from the verbatim script. The effect is unfortunately comic, but if you’ve seen the news, the book, the film, the installation you’ll know that the police, however you may regard their role in events, were profoundly afraid. The production sidesteps this and the intensity of the riot with ironic cool. Beautiful One Day has been fulsomely praised by reviewers, and some of that praise is warranted, but it is a work that is neither as focused, integrated nor as taut as anticipated.

Carriageworks & Stalker Theatre, Encoded, conception, direction David Clarkson, performers Lee-Anne Litton, Miranda Ween, Rick Everett, Timothy Ohl, digital artist interactive systems, Andrew Johnston, virtual costumes Alejandro Rolandi, architectural mapping design Sam Clarkson, choreographer Paul Selwyn Norton, composer Peter Kennard, multimedia dramaturg and consultant Kate Richard, lighting Mike Smith, costumes Annemaree Dalziel, Carriageworks, Sydney, Nov 28-Dec 1; Belvoir, version 1.0 & Ilbijerri Theatre Company, Beautiful One Day, devisors: AV designer Sean Bacon, performer, cultural, consultant Magdalena Blackley, performers Kylie Doomadgee, Paul Dwyer, Rachael Maza, Jane Phegan, Harry Reuben; other devisors Eamon Flack, David Williams; set & costume designer Ruby Langton-Batty, lighting Frank Mainoo, composer, sound design Paul Prestipino; Belvoir Upstairs, Nov 21-Dec 23, 2012

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 29

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

25 February 2013