Loosely speaking

Jonathan Marshall

<img src="http://www.realtime.org.au/wp-content/uploads/art/10/1036_marshall_kage.jpg" alt="Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, Walter Lavarre,
The Day the World Turned Upside Down”>

Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, Walter Lavarre,
The Day the World Turned Upside Down

Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyck, Walter Lavarre,
The Day the World Turned Upside Down

When I spoke to theatre maker Tom Wright about his dark neo-pantomime script, Babes in the Wood (Playbox, 2003), he noted 2 major trends which have energised theatrical practice and style throughout history. These may be broadly categorised as “the loose” and “the tight”. Like Wright, Kate Denborough and Gerard Van Dyke of Kage Physical Theatre are strongly drawn to the theatrical traditions of pantomime and vaudevillian performance. With Babes in the Wood Wright was interested in reclaiming the darker aspects of this culture, its slippages and scandals—in short, the ragged political violence and instability of this ‘loose’ theatrical tradition. The relationship of Van Dyke and Denborough to vaudevillian pantomime is very different, as evidenced by their latest work The Day the World Turned Upside Down.

Like the pantomime tradition itself, Kage’s aesthetic consists of a series of bits and pieces, shards and fragments which are sewn together to create a world of comic magic and pleasure. It is partly these tropes and ideas, sensibilities and inspirations, that appeal in Kage’s work. But despite an ongoing interest in an episodic, abstract narrative structure, physical game play and theatrical illusion, Kage’s directors have yet to establish a clear relationship to the styles and genres which they mine and reinterpret. This has contributed to a somewhat uneven and, at times, slipshod feeling to their work. Wright’s interest in ‘the loose’ comes from a specific cultural politics. For him, it ensures that a certain aesthetic and political danger inheres in the performance. ‘Looseness’ is, in short, a tool for the creation of a potentially radical aesthetic. The Marx Brothers’ merciless send up of nationalism and trench warfare in Duck Soup is a good example.

In contrast, Kage are committed to looseness as a virtue in its own right, a relaxed comic feel which gives their otherwise theatrically sophisticated productions populist appeal. Perhaps the most radical aspect of their adoption of changeable structure and format is the implication that this is the language of dreams.

Their take on ‘the loose’ as an ideal accounts for my ambivalence towards Kage’s work. There is no denying the skill of Van Dyke and Denborough as theatre makers, gifted in creating slightly connected, yet intriguing theatrical images which pass before the eyes. But even the best of these images tend not to linger, precisely because the aesthetic politics of their staging remains gentle and light.

It is nearly 7 years since Kage was founded, and their combination of naff humour, physical game play and light surrealism is well established. Their tropes have become readily identifiable. There is the non-theatrical performer, or untrained child, or in the case of The Day the World Turned Upside Down, a delightfully aged veteran of big top performance, Walter Lavarre. There are circus tricks more or, in this case, somewhat less successfully incorporated. And there are the strange moments of bodily transformation, levitation, or other surprises. In this production, Denborough’s dress spontaneously inflates until her rotund form reaches absurd proportions. But what is the point of it all? Perhaps in the end there is no point, and this is the challenge of Kage’s aesthetic: that the strange, the bizarre and the comic will, in the end, recede, allowing audience and performers to return to normality, essentially unchanged.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down received a lukewarm critical reception in Melbourne. For me it seemed like a case of the Emperor’s new clothes. To be sure, The Day was not the company’s best work, but its essential structure and ambience was consistent with earlier pieces. If Kage’s previously lightweight but highly amusing shows satisfied, it is hard say what this latest production lacked which the others possessed. Perhaps it was simply the introduction of text. Theatrical illusion always seems strongest when presented in silence. Nevertheless, for me it is the question of cultural politics that is the most ambivalent aspect of the company’s work. This issue is inseparable from what one wants from comic theatre. If one is seeking something akin to The Lucille Ball Show on stage then The Day and Kage’s other works remain eminently satisfying. If one is looking for something closer to The Young Ones, then Kage’s current way of producing art will leave you dissatisfied.

Kage, The Day the World Turned Upside Down, performers/devisors Kate Denborough, Gerard Van Dyke, Walter Lavarre; lighting Niklas Pajanti, design Paula Lewis, sound David Franzke, special effects Gordon Wilson; North Melbourne Town Hall, April 3-18

RealTime issue #61 June-July 2004 pg. 7

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

1 June 2004