Dark tales cast light in dark times

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: Vanessa Bates, The Magic Hour

Ursula Yovich, The Magic Hour

Ursula Yovich, The Magic Hour

Ursula Yovich, The Magic Hour

In his “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915), TS Eliot named dusk “the violet hour”—when the work-sodden, with charcoaled hearts, come home from thankless jobs to lonely rooms and food laid out in tins. In that terse, 133-line poem, he draws the picture of a whole time, culture and place trapped within the social and economic drives of history but, albeit half-consciously, desperate for something to change.

Vanessa Bates’ re-telling of six of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales is also set in that husk-dusk ‘magic hour’ where a combination of unspoken longing, hope, sadness, entrapment and desperation leak through into the tail-ends of our days. Her setting, however, is not the 1910-15 of pre-Great War London, but a 21st century dystopia of broken promises, intergenerational wounds, iniquities and inequities playing out in caravan parks, country discotheques and bleak high rises, Australia-wide.

While in her script, Big—as in Wolves, parents and grandparents, step-mothers and trailer-park trash, both black and white—meet Small (daughters, sisters, sons, tiny babes), there is no reassurance that anything in the Big World brings redemption. As in the Grimms’ tales, ‘homes’ are compromised: babies are abandoned, taken up and adopted, but abandoned yet again. Where is the woodchopper (the Father or overarching caregiver) who overcomes the Wolf, the Stepmother, the Rumpelstiltzkin?

Grandmothers sleep with their granddaughters’ boyfriends; fathers, rather than providing protection, betray their daughters to a scheming Frog and leave the mother with chlamydia; and Jack’s mother ends up taking one heroin dose too many, leaving him abandoned to his resilience but essentially alone.

Curiously, these stories are actually minus the Uncanny, which in the Grimms’ tales also open doorways to redemption. Bates’ “magic hour” is thus closer to the bleak hyper-realities of Tim Winton, especially his stories in The Turning.

The performance thus leaves a curious taste. The show is not quite bittersweet, not quite sour; but significant questions arise. For example: who supplied those drugs to Jack’s dad and mum? Who built that ghastly housing commission high-rise? Perhaps, as with Winton, these represent an index of deep and long-standing social malaise and, as such, much more complex than to be left to the Uncanny to resolve.

One cannot escape the fact that Ursula Yovich, a performer of Aboriginal heritage, brings a sharp poignancy to the telling of these tales just by visibly (both darkly and lightly) being who she is. This puts a sharper edge on the production than if the storyteller were cast as a middle-class white female, for whom it was generically written, but again not one that resolves anything in a simple way. With such complex history as we have in 21st century Australia, who is the Father, the saviour; where is the wisdom and resilience that survives and precipitates deep change for our society as a whole?

That said, the work—so beautifully performed, directed and staged—creates great pleasures too, and can be received on many levels. An elderly gent in the stalls before me called out a simple, heart-felled ‘Yay” as he applauded, so deeply moved and engaged was he, it seems. I am moved by his response; it’s as if he were responding to a tale told by his own grandchild: ‘Ah, here is the wound. Let me hold and feel it with you.’

Perhaps, this age, the age in which we live, is one that hears all, solves nothing. But in that very fact may be our redemption.

The Magic Hour, writer Vanessa Bates, director Chris Bendall, performer Ursula Yovich, designer, Alicia Clements, lighting, music Joe Lui; Street Theatre, Canberra, 5, 6 July

RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. web

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

18 August 2014