New visions, forms unfamiliar

John Bailey on recent Melbourne performance

Jacklyn Bassanelli, Unholy Site

Jacklyn Bassanelli, Unholy Site

Melbourne performances took a turn towards the unfamiliar as 2006 commenced, several toying with form to produce exciting new visions of theatricality. Jacklyn Bassanelli’s solo performance Unholy Site elicited sharply contrasting responses from audiences, centred on the curious and unusual choices made in the formal aspects of the work’s presentation. The show’s subject is not one which would prove difficult to most theatre goers, offering a modern reworking of the tale of Antigone. But the setting in which this narrative is articulated proved to be unsettling, confusing or alienating for many.

Unholy Site

The entire monologue was presented for its small audience as a pre-recorded video image shot in a single take. Sound and lighting were operated by the performer herself while on screen, and even the panning and zooming of the camera were under her control. The screened image was played on a smallish monitor with a stereo player attached, and to one side stood the tripod-mounted camera responsible for the taping. It was quickly apparent that the video was shot in the same space it was now being played, and as the narrative unfolded a number of complex themes could be seen to circulate around this tableau.

Foremost for this viewer was the question of presence and absence: if theatre’s “liveness” is what distinguishes it from many other artforms, what are we to make of a performance whose liveness is conspicuously made absent? And what replaces that sense? Can the unfolding of a narrative as enacted onscreen be seen to have a certain live quality of its own? Unholy Site in this manner took on the air of a posthumous epistle, a letter from the dead as well as a bottled message washed up on our shore, origin unknown. Since it was never clear whether Bassanelli would ever turn up as an actual live performer, or if she was even present in the building, this ambiguity created a kind of double consciousness, an awareness of things deliberately made invisible, a ghosting effect.

A second, interrelated issue raised by the mode of presentation was of the importance of temporality and duration to every narrative. With the tools of the video’s recording so prominently displayed (and still switched on), there was a Marie Celeste type atmosphere wherein we felt that we had just missed the live enacting of events onscreen, while the narrative itself seemed to indicate that these events took place a long time ago. This intentional blurring of the chronology of the story again produced a consciousness of the elsewhere, and elsewhen, without providing any certainty to interpretation.

For critics and audiences for whom story is all, I can understand how this mode of presentation could be seen as a failed experiment. Certainly, the small screen, amateur camerawork and coldness of the image didn’t foreground the text, but at times made it secondary to the site of technology. But for me, the power of the performance was only enhanced by this emphasis on the act of display. After opening, however, the show’s creators reworked the piece for subsequent showings, reintroducing live performance to the piece in order to make clearer the focus of the narrative. Certainly, though the effect would be different, I don’t imagine this alternate version would be any the worse for its changes. Bassanelli’s ability as a performer is manifestly of a standard able to carry the work as a live rendition, with a deftness and nuanced delivery apparent from the outset.

One Way Street

Another solo monologue with more than enough to fascinate and intrigue was Theatre @ Risk’s One Way Street. Penned by Scottish playwright David Grieg, One Way Street is a peripatetic walking tour of Berlin as delivered by a very unreliable guide. An English ex-pat, John Flannery, takes us through the history of that historically layered metropolis, but along the way his own history constantly intrudes upon his narration. We gradually discover a character whose personal past is densely woven into the concrete pavements, bullet-pocked walls and skeletal trees of the city, and our experience of the physical space of Berlin becomes inseparable from the experiences of the teller. Added to this is another level of complexity: Flannery’s status as a (somewhat unsuccessful) writer means that the act of composing his narrative becomes one of the focal points of the play; the writing of history is as much of concern as how that history is to be understood. It’s a rare theatrical example of what Canadian theorist Linda Hutcheon has termed “historiographic metafiction”; that is, postmodern stories which seek to find ways of recapturing history while remaining aware of the status of all history as narrative, and thus susceptible to interpretation. As Flannery attempts to find meaning in the history of the post-WWII city, his reconstruction of events also becomes an attempt to realise the sense of his own past, of what has produced the miserable excuse for a life he finds himself living.

If all of this sounds terribly grim, it isn’t. Grieg’s script handles its subject with a laughing seriousness, and is at times very, very funny. The humour is handled in surprisingly capable fashion by performer Simon Kingsley Hall, whose extensive previous work with Theatre @ Risk has never suggested his abilities as a comic actor. The role, in the hands of another, could easily have slipped into caricature and excess. Over the fairly brief duration of the work, Kingsley Hall slips effortlessly into more than a dozen different roles and accents, distinguishing each immediately with carefully chosen physicalities that never bleed into one another. It’s probably his finest performance to date, and suggests an exponential leap in skill for this performer.

One Way Street was presented as the centrepiece for a series of works under the banner of 20th Century Close Up, all devoted to exploring the history of the 20th century through innovative forms. The remainder of the works making up the season were offered as playreadings, and were a mixed bunch. The opener, Futur De Luxe by Swiss playwright Igor Bauersima, for instance, was a confused story that didn’t live up to its writer’s promise. Other works included plays by Juan Mayorga, Antony Sher and an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children.

The Butterfly Seer

Rushdie seems to have been flavour of the month in Melbourne of late, with Indija Mahjoeddin’s The Butterfly Seer taking as its inspiration a segment of the author’s controversial The Satanic Verses. A beautiful prophet is called in a vision to take the people of her town on a pilgrimage across the ocean, and treks across India towards the promised land. The story reaches its climax when Ayesha arrives at the Arabian Sea and leads her followers beneath the waters, watched by an unbeliever who nonetheless has trailed her journey but finally finds his lack of faith prevents him from taking the literal ‘final plunge.’ The dialectic of the piece is a very relevant one: the drama unfolds as a conflict between belief and scepticism, with the ambiguous resolution suggesting a kind of aporia or incommensurability between absolute faith and modern doubt.

Of great interest, however, was the mode of performance chosen by Mahjoeddin. The Butterfly Seer is presented in the form of traditional Sumatran opera known as Randai. Each section of the work commences with a musical performance accompanied by a sung rendition of the story, and then moves onto a performed drama. The style of this drama is highly coded according to the conventions of Randai: characters circle one another, perform with exaggerated gestures and poses, and the interaction is almost always in the form of conflict, whether a verbal debate or physical melee. The show also incorporates puppetry, poetry and martial arts. The result is disarmingly unfamiliar: highly ritualistic and formalised, yet spellbindingly original. The musical component of the program was impeccably delivered, led by multi-instrumentalist Adrian Sherriff as well as Sumatran guest artist Admiral Datuak Rangkayo and musicians Rendra Freestone and Stephen Grant. The physicality of the percussion-based score was of a visceral intensity, musicians often playing their own clothes or indeed bodies alongside the dozens of instruments utilised. The evening’s second half, in fact, began with one performer guiding his audience through the traditional sequence of shouts, claps and thigh-slapping which marks the transition between scenes, and all in attendance were soon joining in with gusto.

Mahjoeddin’s work was a stimulating experiment in applying a form of performance rarely seen in this country to a tale with strong contemporary resonances, and the outcome was mixed. I was initially wary of the performance styles, until I realised that the exaggerated acting and excessively posed stances were in fact conventions of Randai rather than the result of awkward directing. Mahjoeddin explicitly sought the feedback of her audiences, asking them to consider which of the various conventions of the particular form on offer might profitably be used to further effect within the Australian performance landscape, and this commitment to producing a dialogue between different cultural traditions is a deeply encouraging one.

Unholy Site, writer-performer Jacklyn Bassanelli, additional text by Chris Kohn, John Howard, directors Jacklyn Bassanelli, Cat Wilson, dramaturgy Cat Wilson, Margaret Cameron, production concept Margaret Cameron, composer-performer Brea Acton, sound Tom Dunstan, lighting Luke Hails; The Croft Institute, Jan 20-28

Theatre @ Risk, One Way Street, writer David Grieg, performer Simon Kingsley Hall, director Chris Bendall, producer Kirrilly Brentnall, design Isla Shaw, lighting Nick Merrylees, music Kelly Ryall; fortyfive downstairs, Feb 7-12

The Butterfly Seer, director-librettist Indija Mahjoeddin, composer & musical director Adrian Sherriff, performers Tegan Newman-Howell, Wayne Van Keren, Indija Mahjoeddin, puppetry Carol Chong, music performed by Adrian Sherriff, Admiral Datuak Rangkayo, Rendra Freestone and Stephen Grant; song & storytelling by Elizabeth Sisson, production/sound by Todd Maher, lighting Cassandra J Leigh; La Mama Theatre, Carlton Courthouse, Feb 21-25

RealTime issue #72 April-May 2006 pg. 41

© John Bailey; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2006