Good Little Soldier, a work by Australian performance-maker Mark Howett first presented in Berlin and newly staged in Perth by Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and The Farm, deals with post-traumatic stress disorder in soldier veterans. After an opening scene set in an outback kitchen, we are briefly thrown back to Frank’s wartime experience in which he and his comrades capture a woman and a boy. Frank releases the boy to assist his colleague in pinning the woman to the floor. A bomb explodes and only Frank survives. The way in which his own family (wife Trish and son Josh) can be read as his enemies returned to haunt him is thus made clear.

Otherwise the work offers few allusions to either wartime experience itself or to how Frank recalls it. It is rather an exploration of the physical and emotional abuse that he inflicts on his family as a result of his trauma. The focus is therefore quite different from works like Angus Cerini’s Debrief (1999) or the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch (2006), both of which included accounts of battlefield experiences and interviews with veterans about how events were replayed in their memories. One of the most terrifying stories Cerini related was how one man awoke with his hands around his wife’s throat. Good Little Soldier is in this sense an extended dramatisation of such later, domestic events. But what is actually occurring in Frank’s mind, or indeed the others’ minds, is only darkly refracted — rather than explicated — through his abusive behaviour.

Good Little Soldier, Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & The Farm, photo Peter Tea

The strength of the piece lies in the way it segues between domestic situations which could plausibly be occurring in a ‘real’ world, into unambiguously hallucinatory scenes. Frank is silhouetted against the window as his ghostly, white-attired dead comrades climb down the walls and suspend his squirming body in the air (crawling down walls has been a choreographic trademark of The Farm since Lawn, 2004; watch trailer here). In another striking sequence, Frank, spotlit from above in the darkness, pushes violently against Trish, before she is replaced by each of the ghosts, and then Josh, in a circling wrestling competition that cannot be resolved — the characters endlessly swapping places and matching each other. Choreographically, the piece is dominated by awkward, violent grappling and pushing: a messy rolling and bumping of bodies which form clumsy, writhing piles or temporarily balanced, off-centre structures, before tumbling down. As with Lawn and other works from The Farm, dancers hang off each other from unusual points, such as the head and neck. Faces seem more sites to push fingers into, or to wrap palms across, rather than sites of expressivity.

Good Little Soldier is episodic with each semi-pedestrian set of gestures, or slapping and physical configurations, caught in repetitive cycles. This has a nasty, imprisoned feel to it, but the production is otherwise somewhat flat emotionally. Frank finally raises his hand to strike Josh, and at one point he dons Trish’s dress before slamming himself repeatedly against the wall. These two acts of shocking violence against his loved ones, and, by implication, against himself (to hit Trish is also to hit himself), act as markers within the protagonist’s breakdown. But otherwise the transition from opening to conclusion is horizontal and open-ended. Each scenario is established before being repeated with minor variations, ending with an exhausted collapse, or a character’s departure. Dramatic development within scenes is rare, and their arrangement largely discontinuous. Therefore the affective content depends heavily on the superb music of Dale Couper and Matthew de la Hunty, together with Laurie Sinagra’s sound design — as is consistent with The Farm’s overall multimedia aesthetic.

Good Little Soldier, Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & The Farm, photo Peter Tea

Speakers are secreted beneath the seating banks such that leviathanic bass rumbles grind throughout the venue, engulfing audience and performer alike. This sense of the corrugated iron shed which the family inhabits as being something we too are trapped inside, is accentuated by regular entrances and exits through the auditorium, or a moment where a drunken Frank thumps under the seating, asking Trish to let him into the house. Couper and de la Hunty’s immersive score runs from low frequency noise music (signifying the war and moments where Frank slips into trauma), through to pulsing synthesisers recalling 1970s kraut-rock, distorted blues/country-and-western guitar solos, as well as manic junk percussion akin to early Hunters and Collectors (which featured Greg Perano on broken water heaters). The overall effect is like a more than usually theatrical gig from The Birthday Party.

The overall dramaturgy of Good Little Soldier feels at best loose. The expressivity of the work echoes instead the slightly rough aesthetic of the outback-style design, post-punk music and deliberately fumbling choreography. It functions more like a series of related installations. This is arguably the most ‘German’ aspect of the show (referred to by Mark Howett in a RealTime interview), placing it firmly within Hans Thies Lehman’s category of postdramatic theatre. Good Little Soldier is best seen as a striking collection of thematically related set-pieces, giving the performance an absorbing sense of danger and possibility.

You can watch the Berlin production of Good Little Soldier below:

Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & The Farm, Good Little Soldier, concept, direction, lighting Mark Howett, choreography, text, performance Gavin Webber, Grayson Millwood, Ian Wilkes, Raewyn Hill, Otto Kosok, performers, music Dale Couper, Matthew de la Hunty, sound design Laurie Sinagra, dramaturg Phil Thomson, set, costume Bryan Woltjen; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, 9-30 July

Top image credit: Good Little Soldier, Ochre Contemporary Dance Company & The Farm, photo Peter Tea

Ochre Contemporary Dance Company is presenting a new production in Perth of Mark Howett’s Good Little Soldier, which premiered at Radialsystem V Berlin in 2013 to appreciative reviews. After working in Berlin for 12 years, Howett, a Nyoongar man, returned to Perth to be appointed Ochre’s Artistic Director. His international career in lighting design, including the Adelaide Festival-Sydney Theatre Company production of The Secret River and Katya Kabanova for Seattle Opera, has expanded into video design and directing. Howett was also a founding member of renowned performance ensemble The Farm, with Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood who collaborated on the Berlin and Perth productions of Good Little Soldier.

For this his second production with Ochres (the first was Kaya in 2016), Howett is revisiting a very personal subject, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was suffered by his soldier father. Howett’s focus on the condition extends to its impact on partners and families and into the broader community. I spoke with him by phone.

 

What from your knowledge and experience — I understand you’ve had an instance of PTSD in your family — are the interior and exterior manifestations of the condition?

There’s the struggle of the sufferer. They don’t really want to give it out, to live it out and it manifests itself in physical symptoms, like sweating and palpitations. And hysteria is a way of dealing with trauma. We got really interested in the symptoms — like the tendency to shake or to see things as incredibly funny as a way to deal with it. Or they’ll get really remorseful and go completely internal, where they almost roll up into the foetal position.

 

Did you witness this yourself as a child?

I did, and at the beginning of making Good Little Soldier it was the way we got into some of the improvisations that became scenes and it was pretty cathartic for me to witness them. There were times when I found it difficult to watch. Then we started finding how some of those situations I went through were common to other families. Once we’d done consultations with organisations — like Partners of Veterans — and showings, families could come and have a say and then we fed that back into the piece. So whereas it started out with my experience, what my father’s behaviour was like, it went much more into dealing with the victims from the community’s point of view.

 

What was your approach to the material?

When I made this work in Berlin and it was after 12 years of living there, working as a designer and learning the German approach and their dramaturgy, I tried to get a lot of that into the way we made the work as well — a certain analytical viewpoint. I’d gone straight for the emotional in pieces I’ve made but the Germans take that away — they see it as embellishment. And they try to get to the heart of it. For example, they’ll use text in a devised work but they like to use text that the audience might know, say, a famous piece of writing about the war. When you hear those words you understand them, then you can go a step further with it in your thinking.

 

How do you translate the experience of PTSD, whether directly experienced by the subject or observed by family, into a stage language? There must be a leap when you’re no longer working literally?

That’s right. We try to get into it through triggers. We’ll show the incident in real time in a normal domestic scene and then use a trigger the soldier associates with the traumatic incident. That jumps us back with him — even if it’s for a few seconds — into what he’s experiencing and then back out into what is ‘normal.’

 

Berlin production, Good Little Soldier, photo Derek Kreckler

You’re pushing from a naturalistic scene into a heightened reality?

Yes. You get the context of what it might be like to suffer the repeating of the incident, over and over in the head. When sufferers experience it, they think they’re back there and it’s real — completely real. The trigger can be sound, it can be smell, it can be any of the senses that immediately puts them back there, even if it’s only seconds and then in the context of having to try to live a normal life when they return to be with the family. What would that be like in the middle of a normal day to suddenly be back in one of the most horrific incidents that you were involved in in the war? The family are sort of like good soldiers, ready to carry on and support him or her when they come home. They suffer it as well, because of the stress of that heightened awareness that happens within the home. You’re trying to be one step ahead of the sufferer so that they don’t experience a trigger or that you don’t cause it.

 

Is the trauma psychologically shared by partners and family?

I think it hits families multi-generationally. I think the suicide rate for children of veterans is higher than for veterans themselves.

 

You’re a Nyoongar man, you have a fellow Indigenous performer in the production and Ochre is an Indigenous and cross-cultural company. Indigenous soldiers would have suffered PTSD.

The actor Kelton Pell and I were talking about it and he said to me, “Come on, brother, all of us are suffering PTSD; it hasn’t stopped!” And that’s right. The repercussions for each generation are cumulative and really affect a whole community, let alone an individual family. That’s one of the big things we’re trying to say, that people suffering these big things unless we give them all the support we can, [trauma] can spread through the community as well. The repercussions of it, the dysfunctionality and the anguish as well for families. [Nyoongar actor, director and dancer] Ian Wilkes who is playing the ghost of a soldier is really fantastic. A really remarkable performance.

 

Mark Howett, photo Stefan Gosatti

Is this ghost a friend of the central figure?

Yes, and the incident is really a moral dilemma as well. Modern soldiers often have to go into domestic situations and deal with the public. There’s an even a greater dilemma for the soldier about killing. I was reading an amazing book that says only 10% of soldiers actually aim to kill. The rest aim to miss. It’s not within us to kill other people.

 

What’s the nature of the stage and sound design of Good Little Soldier?

The design by Bryan Woltjen is of a really isolated place that could be in the country or the city, pretty run-down, pretty dysfunctional — a bit like the family. And in the Subiaco Arts Centre theatre, we have a full 360-degree soundscape. The sound design becomes really important because noises are a very quick way of getting inside the mind of the sufferer. There’s a 21-gun salute, but it’s me doing a 21-gun salute for the innocents in the conflict. I also use video a lot in my work. I just came back from working with the Seattle Opera and filmed the countryside up there and I’m using it to help [convey traumatic] incidents as well.

 

And what do you hope your production will do for soldiers with PTSD and their families?

Well, obviously, beginning a conversation, building awareness that families can’t wear so much of the social cost and we have to help them in preventative ways. To the best of our ability, we must give them as much support as we can, as early as we can, so that the illness doesn’t become so prevalent and there’s a better chance of ensuring that they’re healthier people. It is about health really.

 

Is there anything you’d like to add about the production?

There is. The relationship with The Farm: Gavin Webber and Grayson Millwood. We’ve been long-term collaborators and I feel blessed to have worked with them and they’ve really encouraged me to develop myself as well. Part of the reason I’ve started directing is that when we were making work together in Europe, often I was the only person out front and I ended up having to do the notes on the performance. It eventually got to the stage where they’d say, “Mark, that’s enough. You’ve started directing, alright!” So, they encouraged me to go from being a lighting designer to be brave enough to conceive and develop my own work. The relationship I’ve had with them on the shows we’ve made like LAWN, Roadkill and Food Chain has been fantastic, supportive, awesome, funny, and I’m so lucky they’re part of the development of this new work. And in the same way, it’s happening in my work as a designer for Raewyn Hill, the Artistic Director of Perth’s Co3 dance company. It feels really healthy to interact with people that you’ve got history with in developing work. You know how they behave and you know their level of commitment. That they give it to you so generously is awesome.

Ochre Contemporary Dance Company with The Farm, Good Little Soldier, concept, direction Mark Howett, choreography, performance Grayson Millwood, Gavin Webber, Raewyn Hill, Otto Kosok, Ian Wilkes, dramaturgy Phil Thomson, design Bryan Woltjen, music Dale Couper, Matthew de la Hunty, Laurie Sinagra; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, 9-30 July

Top image credit: WA production, Good Little Soldier, photo Stefan Gossati

Richard Frankland’s play Conversations With The Dead premiered 11 years after the 1987-91 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. The Commission published over 330 recommendations, including the promotion of self-determination through Indigenous representation and land rights. Since then the Mabo and Wik decisions have been watered down, ATSIC abolished, while Indigenous men and women continue to die in custody and by their own hands. On the 15th anniversary of the Commission publishing its findings, the Indigenous Affairs Minister insisted that such matters are up to states — despite the 1967 referendum that specifically empowers the federal government to make legislation applicable to Indigenous peoples.

While staging Conversations in 2002 seemed like a proclamation of angry mourning, watching it today after yet another 15 years of inaction and black deaths is liable to cause one to fall into the pitchest of pitch-black cynicism towards the potential of theatre, art and activism to have purchase on those situations needing intervention.

Alan Little, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

Yirra Yaakin may be refusing a reading of our sense of impotence, yet the production still prompts such questions. The 2002 premiere (reviewed by RealTime) should have been a wakeup call for a hideously uncaring, violent nation to get its shit together. But that did not happen, and it will not now. In the state where Conversations… is being performed we have Australia’s highest per capita Indigenous incarceration rate, only slightly below that in the US for black people.

In his opening night speech, author and former Royal Commission Investigator Frankland insists that when you have stories, you have hope. But it’s hard to entirely agree. In the play, Frankland’s alias, Jack, offers a seemingly endless series of self-excoriating reflections, repeatedly talking with the helpless, often angry ghosts who surround him. Beer bottles are a constant, and Jack relates how each day he counts the places from which he could hang himself. He is only safe when inebriated, in a corner, back to the wall, having located the exit route and identified all the weapons in the establishment (chairs, glass bottles etc). In one scene, he relates how a racist comment left him standing weeping over a bloodied, unconscious drinker.

Maitland Schnaars, Alan Little, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

Much of the action is performed in and around a metal car frame, or on an abandoned car seat. The play becomes a metaphorical road-trip performed by a man locked behind mental, historical and social bars as he careens through a landscape of mourning towards violent self-immolation. Jack does indeed find death, rushing into a storm at a seaside cliff, only to be tossed back into a tree, where he loses consciousness. The play is silent as to whether or not he wakes. Although one feels he should, in light of Australia’s never-ending race nightmare, the possibility that he will fall into a deathly coma cannot be ignored.

Two themes confuse this sorrowful reading, the main one being the mobility of the car itself. Australia has a history of road movies in which the protagonists traverse the fault-lines of race (eg Backroads, 1976, Beneath Clouds, 2002). The automobile set design for Conversations… symbolises not only a gaol cell (hung with socks such as those used by one man to hang himself) but also shifting bubbles of calm amid all the deaths invoked.

Jack is played by two actors: Maitland Schnaars and Alan Little. Jack works on a boat, and although the ropes and knots affixed to bars forecast the deathly nooses that blight his existence, in this sea-tossed cage ropes can be comfortably held and mastered. A similar emotional and corporeal ease occurs when Jack (now played by Little) converses with Uncle (Schnaars), who affectionately daubs the bars with a brush. Like the deceased body which both Schnaars and Little later wash clean of blood, the world they inhabit is treated with care.

The bleakness of the production is further countered by the sharing of roles. Schnaars excels at the presentational mode, speaking in third person about himself, while Little is more inward. Schnaars is tall and when his physicality lets go — as when he runs at the cliff — he funnels space, sucking it up and filling the room. Little is firmly grounded; more weighty than expansive. Not only Little and Schnaars speak for Jack. Simone Detourbet, otherwise playing the protagonist’s sympathetic yet exasperated wife, also voices him at one point, entering something like a fugue state beside the others.

Peter Docker, Maitland Schnaars, Simone Detourbet, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green

In short, the performance extends and shares its affects and roles. Jack is not quite Richard Frankland, and nor — obviously — can he be me. I am both a spectator and a gubba. Yet the absent bodies of the dead, ghosted so effectively on stage, do seem spectrally exchanged and embraced in this work, even as they physically fend off the entreaties of the living characters and, by extension, us in the audience. There is no catharsis in Conversations With The Dead. The situation is too dire. And the masculine self-harm dramatised here is genuinely disturbing. The gravelly, DIY aesthetic seems to reflect this jagged, aggressive maleness, which is both Jack’s strength and his weakness. It too can be turned around and shared. The production functions then less as protest, and more as a collective remembering.

Yirra Yaakin Theatre, Conversations With the Dead, writer Richard Frankland, director James Taylor, performers Maitland Schnaars, Alan Little, Simone Detourbet, Peter Docker, Calen Tassone, Tornina Torres, design Chris Brain, lighting Chris Donnelly, music Zac James; Subiaco Arts Centre, Perth, 18-27 May

Top image credit: Alan Little, Tornina Torres, Conversations with the Dead, photo Jon Green