Peeling back epidermis Australis

Dickon Oxenburgh

Junction Theatre & Leigh Warren Dancers, Piercing the Skin

Junction Theatre & Leigh Warren Dancers, Piercing the Skin

English playwright Martin Crimp’s late 80’s satire on Thatcherite conservatism, Play With Repeats, has been reprised in a quietly effective production at the ADT’s Balcony Theatre. In a one-off production, director Chris Drummond guided his strong ensemble through the bleak netherworld of the central character Anthony Steadman (played with naïve fanaticism by Geoff Revell). Steadman inhabits a limbo of desolate urban spaces like some latter day Candide, energised by a kind of intuitive optimism that “everything is possible.”

Steadman is an amiable, unambitious low-tech worker in a hi-fi factory whose blind faith belies the deep cynicism and depressive fear of most of the characters that he comes into contact with: embittered fellow travellers at the bar—Kate (Jacqueline Cook) and Nick (Justin Moore), and Steadman’s harried boss Franky (effectively doubled by Cook). This white-collar subsistence world is stripped of meaning by economic rationalism, where cynicism is the strongest bulwark against despair. Steadman tries to further understand his world by employing the services of Lamine, a shabby, irascible clairvoyant (played with shuffling pomposity by Phil Spruce). But Steadman’s utopian alternative to the post-industrial wasteland he inhabits is revealed to be a nostalgic neo-Victorian conservatism connoted by visions of grand houses and sweeping gardens. His real nature is finally revealed when he tramples the only real possibility for human warmth and companionship held out by Barbara (interpreted with fragile sincerity by Cathy Adamek).

With some great jazz by music director Julian Ferraretto, and effective, functional stage design by Gaelle Mellis, Play with Repeats still has metaphoric resonance today, giving us pause to reflect on what we have lost or gained through the past 10 years of fundamental economic change. Who has benefited from that change and at what cost to community values?

Community and attendant notions of connection and alienation are explored in 2 other recent arts events in Adelaide. Piercing the Skin and Body Art have peeled back epidermis Australis with striking results.

The human body as post-structural icon scarified by the twin forces of identity and power is a popular theme in contemporary arts and culture. “The body is both a playground and a battlefield; the site where the greatest tenderness occurs and the most brutal inequality is acted out,” says Vanessa Baird of the New Internationalist-inspired Piercing The Skin, a performance collage of impressive quality and diversity performed last month by Junction Theatre and Leigh Warren Dancers.

The companies jointly commissioned 5 distinctly different writers (Rodney Hall, Stephen House, Eva Johnson, Verity Laughton and Paul Rees) to interpret Baird’s sentiment. The result was a series of vignettes, each exploring broad connections of time and space, language and subcultures in an eclectic interplay of styles. Eva Johnson’s The Body Born Indigenous 1 & 2 took the form of a piquant ode to identity and sense of place, while Paul Rees chose a monologue for Spare Parts (1&2), a mordant apologia for body-part farming (the ultimate rationalization of the individual?). Verity Laughton created a vivid poetic dialogue for Fox, a forensic whodunit spanning 1000 years. Stephen House’s expressionistic Walk In the Dirt and Rodney Hall’s The Self, a satiric examination of gender and difference, rounded out the conceptual kaleidoscope.

Rather than appearing a stylistic hotpotch, I thought Piercing the Skin achieved a real sense of playful connection—a spirit of co-operation that has spilt over into future joint projects mooted for the 2 companies.

Skin piercing took on a decidedly more permanent connotation in Body Art, an ethnographic survey of body decoration at the Museum of South Australia. Representations of traditional cultural insignia from Pacific nations such as Samoan tatua and Maori ta moto are juxtaposed with voyeuristic images of urban tattooing, piercing and scarification. While I appreciate the death of curatorial narrative, I found the thematic progress of the exhibition rather too open ended, relying on sensation (S&M, fetishism) rather than substantial analysis. Camp irony abounds in some of the contrasts, such as the comparison between tribal men wearing restrictive belts and Kylie Minogue sporting her version. In all, Body Art goes a long way in opening up debate surrounding the psycho-sexual pleasures in adornment and cultural initiation but I was troubled by its celebration of a particular stream of underground counterculture by making superficial comparisons with traditional images and material. I also wondered why cosmetic surgery was included, but not surgical scarring?

Ironically, in a small town like Adelaide, neither Piercing The Skin nor Body Art seemed to know of the other’s existence! Better communication spells more lateral audience crossover, which is always handy when you’re doing good contemporary theatre.

Play With Repeats, writer Martin Crimp, director Chris Drummond, lighting Mark Pennington, music Julian Ferraretto, design consultant Gaelle Mellis, Balcony Theatre.

Piercing The Skin, Junction Theatre Company and Leigh Warren Dancers, directed by Geoff Crowhurst and Leigh Warren; designers Kerru Reied and Dean Hills, music David Hirschfelder and Collage; The Space

Body Art, National Museum and the South Australian Museum, Museum of South Australia, July 15–September 30.

RealTime issue #39 Oct-Nov 2000 pg. 38

© Dickon Oxenburgh; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 2000