History, culture, body, stage…

Jonathan Marshall

Anthea Davis, Eugenia Fragos, Daniella Farinacci, Miria Kostiuk, The Telephone Exchange

Anthea Davis, Eugenia Fragos, Daniella Farinacci, Miria Kostiuk, The Telephone Exchange

Anthea Davis, Eugenia Fragos, Daniella Farinacci, Miria Kostiuk, The Telephone Exchange

The word ‘asylum’ once meant a place to withdraw from the pressures of the world to ponder, as in a religious retreat. Later it became associated with psychiatric institutions. Although the Women’s Circus’ Ghosts grew from outrage at Australia’s rejection of asylum to boat people, the production retains this dual sense of the word.

About 60 women with various degrees of training occupied a set that evoked institutions ranging from those established by the Japanese in Singapore and Malaysia, to Nazi concentration camps, Australia’s current detention centres, boarding schools and orphanage dormitories. A row of bunks ran down each side of the set—beyond this, cyclone fencing and towering, Tampa-esque shipping containers enclosed the rear. The space was as ambivalent as those described by survivors of the above: highly gendered (here feminine), oppressive and clearly demarcated, but also a site of mutual cooperation and support against the forces pressing through the wire.

Ghosts is the first Women’s Circus show from Artistic Director Andrea Lemon after last year’s Secrets (by outgoing director Sarah Cathcart, scripted by Lemon). This work has had a mixed reception, largely because of Lemon’s greater use of abstraction and massed choreography. Although the performers were occasionally overstretched, the use of canons (half of the cast beginning a sequence once the others were 2 steps in) masked imprecision in all but the opening and the finale.

Criticism of the piece seemed a result of audience expectations of prescriptive snappy skills and tricks within a dynamic narrative. Personally, I’m tired of high-energy tricks, even if they’re linked to theatrical plot. Though ostensibly a ‘circus’ director, Lemon is largely uninterested in a traditional approach. Abstract, dreamy physical theatre is a better description of her aesthetic, and it’s more distinctive and challenging as a result.

Much of my pleasure came from observing the women on the beds silently watching their peers when not performing themselves. Through this simple, Brechtian device Lemon drew the audience in to share moments of happiness and pain, liberation and entrapment, which were often densely intertwined. A sequence of the women doling out food from rough tin pots beautifully encapsulated this, creating a sense of hardship, of struggle for resources limited by unresponsive, absent authorities, yet also of generosity and affection between the women as they looked from plate to plate to compare their servings. The show occupied a space outside of time, a purgatory, but also a true asylum. Rather than producing a sharply focused, didactic work, Lemon created an abstract space within which issues of survival, feminine strength and communion were played out, leaving temporal or thematic resolution for outside the theatre. Ghosts represented a moment apart, yet was no less political for that.

The design of Ghosts helped achieve a temporal stillness. By contrast, playwright Samantha Bews’ The Telephone Exchange struggled against a clumsy design of irregular grey forms which the actors wrestled to rearrange between scenes, while unremitting, direct light-sources hindered the dark hallucinations, memories and desires expressed by the characters between more naturalistic scenes. Despite such shortcomings, Bews’ play had a subterranean density. Four women work 9 to 5 at a 1950s Melbourne telephone exchange, their brittle patter giving way to disturbing intrusions of sexual, ethnic and social fantasies and occurrences, which gushed in a series of intercut monologues, moving the characters into a surreal state close to delirium.

I later learned that all 4 dream figures were intended to represent aspects of the character played by Daniela Farinacci, but the relationship between various events and individuals was confused in performance. One character (Eugenia Fragos) rhapsodised about the avenging sword of the Archangel Michael piercing her with divine lust while recalling stolen moments with her deceased fiance. Another (Miria Kostiuk) endlessly rehearsed her dream kitchen, appliances and husband. A third (Anthea Davis) related her fantasies of enriching her drab Anglo experience through befriending her exotic Eastern European neighbour (a Russian princess fleeing the Reds, perhaps?) while the fourth (Farinacci) had a Mediterranean lover whose dark presence was both displaced and enhanced by the image of her mother hanging by the neck in an air-raid shelter. Untangling the precise details intended by these allusions was beside the point, as their indeterminacy evoked a dense, psychosocial world broiling beneath the veneer of 1950s Anglo-Australia.

Meredith Rogers’ direction of Peta Tait and Matra Robinson’s Breath By Breath produced a more successful interplay of racial and ethnic tensions through a meditation on the works of Anton Chekhov. Robert Jordan played Chekhov’s gently homoerotic muse, resembling a sympathetic Mephistopheles or Iago, while also playing a young Jew living at the edge of the Russian Pale of Settlement just before the 1880s pogroms. In this context Jordan’s blackness was surprising. Though one could suppose he was a displaced Ethiopian Jew, the effect when combined with his lightly mannered performance, was to render him a classic representation of otherness for European intellectuals such as Chekhov (and the mostly white audience). The mise en scène did not however exoticise this foreign racial presence. Rather, Jordan appeared as a perplexingly intangible, yet destabilising, unfixed influence—like a wisp of time or forgotten event, hovering delicately on the margins of this otherwise typically Chekhovian world with its focus on love and loss.

The staging of Breath By Breath was based on a Brechtian version of the play-within-a-play, tempered with a spartan realisation of Stanislavski’s original writings on performance. The overall effect was to sketch a parallel between Chekhov’s gesturing towards the beauty of moments of love lost in time, and a similar melancholy on the loss of history, on how events such as pogroms are only indirectly evoked, never fully grasped, like snow falling on one’s hand. The comparison is problematic; history surely has a solidity, specificity and urgency that Chekhovian emotions don’t need. Irrespective of one’s position on such debates, Rogers’ production was a sublime exegesis of these issues, all the more remarkable for its gentle, melancholy ambience. Like Ghosts, the political was addressed by withdrawing into an asylum offered by self-conscious performativity.

Ghosts, Women’s Circus, writer-director Andrea Lemon, choreographer Teresa Blake, musical director-composer Andrea Rieniets, sound Dawn Holland, lighting Gina Gascoigne, set Trina Parker, rigging Franca Stadler, costume Amanda Silk, Shed 14, Docklands, Mar 14-Apr 5; The Telephone Exchange, writer Samantha Bews, director Lawrence Strangio, dramaturg Maryanne Lynch, lighting Gina Gascoigne, set Meg White, sound Ben Grant, musical director Geoff Wallis, 45 Downstairs, Mar 5-16; Breath by Breath, writers Peta Tait, Matra Robertson, director-set designer Meredith Rogers, music Madeleine Flynn, Tim Humphrey, lighting Bronwyn Pringle, performers Neil Pigot, Anastasia Malinoff, Robert Jordan, T’Mara Buckmeister, Bob Pavlich, Bruce Kerr, Adrian Mullraney, Carlton Courthouse, April 24-May 10

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 8

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003