surreal and squirmacious

douglas leonard: the black lung theatre & whaling firm, i feel awful

I Feel Awful, Black Lung and Whaling Firm a

I Feel Awful, Black Lung and Whaling Firm a

I Feel Awful, Black Lung and Whaling Firm a

THE SETTING IS THE PRODUCTION OFFICE OF THE BLACK LUNG THEATRE AND WHALING FIRM COMPLETE WITH POT PLANTS. THE COMPANY NAME ALREADY CONNOTED A CORPORATE SPOOF IN CONGENIAL TERRY GILLIAM STYLE.

But what to make of a show where a portrait of Zionist military icon David Ben-Gurion crashes to the ground, Theodor Adorno’s famous statement that after Auschwitz there will be no more poetry (no more comedy?) is enunciated by the character Aaron who opportunistically proclaims his Jewish heritage in the context of appropriating someone else’s script—“It’s all about me”—followed by the outrageous remark that the office was run like a concentration camp, only with more (or was it less?) discipline. What to make of this confusion of signs (and the obvious lacuna of Palestine)? I didn’t take it, as some others did, as a comment on anti-Semitism. Semitic/anti-Semitic? Stop/Go?

Part surreal review or a series of brilliantly crafted, satirical skits on film, television and theatre in the Swiftian sense of being often grotesque and graphically disturbing (Thomas Wright covered in blood as the aftermath to a ritual bacchanal of hysterical male rage), it was also reminiscent of pre-digital pastimes in more innocent, stoned days, where by switching channels on the TV set we sampled our own reconstructions of the public narrative.

On a naturalistic, ‘real life,’ level of presentation, it was like a more offensive version of The Office which belongs to the vein of 21st century comedy that gets much of its mileage from making the audience cringe. In this case, the all-male, apparently misogynist ensemble of The Black Lung exploit and sexually harass the tribe of young Brisbane performers (beautifully integrated into the mature ensemble) whom they are supposed to be mentoring as work experience students. The degree of subtly portrayed power plays and the complete ignorance of having crossed boundaries on the part of the perpetrators was appropriately squirmacious. But these young people were wised up. There was the facsimile of a palace revolution, but I was moved by the young woman who declared, “I don’t know what to do now” (an echo of the Russian revolutionary Lenin’s pamphlet “What is to be Done?”).

A narrative conceit of the demise of Michael Gow, the former artistic director who commissioned the work I Feel Awful for the Queensland Theatre Company, seemed part affectionate tribute, part celebratory slaying of the father. His memorial portrait also suffers a similar fate to that of fallen idol Ben-Gurion as theatre flats crash to the ground signalling the ultimate collapse of the societal (and theatrical) structures we are all implicated in preserving. The fractured lesbian fairytales provided by comical (mis)readings from Gow’s works caused some ire, but again I read it as this company’s anarchic concern to explode implicit binarisms wherever they exist in the minds of the audience.

There seems to be a salutary awareness on the part of this company that they are fatally involved in an industry of distraction. They appeared to be resisting the homogenisation that implies a classless, genderless world that is the result of media technologies that dematerialise, de-individualise, de-centre the subject and to have re-invoked the notion that, as the French Situationist Guy Debord put it in the Society of the Spectacle, “everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” But as a theatre of revolt to wake us from liberal dreams, it seemed compromised by its own situation as part of the Brisbane Festival.

Black Lung Theatre and Whaling Firm and Queensland Theatre Company: I Feel Awful, writer, director, designer Thomas M Wright, performers Liam Barton, Gareth Davies, Aaron Orzech, Vaczadenjo Wharton-Thomas, Thomas M Wright, Courtney Ammenhauser, Finn Gilfedder, Will Horan, Tiarnee Kim, Mary Neary, Essie O’Shaughnessy, Charlie Schache, Nathan Sibthorpe, Stephanie Tandy, design consultant Simone Romaniuk, lighting Govin Ruben; QTC Billie Brown Studio, Brisbane, Aug 22–Sept 10

RealTime issue #105 Oct-Nov 2011 pg. 32

© Douglas Leonard; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

11 October 2011