The telling power of masks

Gail Evans: Business Unusual, Contagion’s Kiss

Contagion’s Kiss,  Business Unusual

Contagion’s Kiss, Business Unusual

Contagion’s Kiss, Business Unusual

Delicately combining some of the darkest elements of the nation’s history, Contagion’s Kiss is a haunting and poignant piece of theatre that transports you to a world of isolation and hardship, yet also of love and hope. The first all-mask collaboration of Nicola Fearn and Sarah Cathcart of Business Unusual, Contagion’s Kiss pulls you into the silent world of the voiceless.

The performance is set in the 1940s on Channel Island, a leprosarium off the coast of Darwin, its inhabitants (95% Indigenous) forcibly removed from the mainland and made to live in quarantine. It follows the interwoven journeys of three distinct characters: a privileged, teenage white girl, about to embark on a musical scholarship in Sydney, before being diagnosed with leprosy; a young Indigenous female leper who assists the doctor in administering treatment; and an old, well-educated white man who writes reams of cranky yet humorous letters to newspapers in the hope of improving conditions on the island and alerting people to the inmates’ plight: “Please send a large teapot, preferably blue, to complement our mood.”

Set in a time when white ‘protectors’ determined Aboriginal people’s fates and their mixed blood children were forcibly removed, Contagion’s Kiss is a work of fiction based on true events and characters.

By using the effortlessly symbolic historical setting of the Channel Island Leprosarium, Fearn and Cathcart are able to depict the darkest afflictions of society at the time. Away from family, young girls’ fingers fester, white doctors try to ‘breed out the black.’

Sarah Cathcart’s direction assures that all the components of Contagions Kiss run together effortlessly, expertly balancing the humour, pathos and tragedy of the characters’ lives. Performers Fearn, Samantha Chalmers and Conor Fox convincingly convey their characters through adroit physicality and gesture, quickly discarding any audience preconceptions that mask might hinder expressiveness. Chalmers’ depiction of Pearl is so communicative that it is almost shocking when she finally does remove her mask for the curtain call.

The set, designed by Marg Howell, is a piece of art. Literally. Over a hundred rocks hang suspended from the ceiling on fine string, hovering a metre off the ground and almost filling the entire stage. A well-executed exercise in negative space, the set provides both a symbolic obstruction and a palpable emptiness. Each rock hangs alone and lonely, a symbol of suspended lives, a visceral response to isolation, barrenness and barriers—of communication, disease and race.

The characters constantly try to navigate around and through these barriers, and it is not until the sudden appearance of a threat to all of society that they collide—the rocks swing and crash together as the sound of a foreign air attack rings out over the harbour.

Conor Fox’s beautifully rendered puppets and puppetry allow us to witness painful scenes through a dreamlike and distant lens. Strings of Aboriginal people are rounded up in chains and led to the Island, a dying inmate unravels to fly skywards and illuminated huts dot the lonely landscape. Rebecca Adams’ moody and evocative lighting design brings these sequences to life.

Mask and puppetry are complemented by Elka Kerkhofs’ animations that creep through the strings of the suspended rocks to flicker on a screen over a line of crosses at the back of the stage.

Kerkhofs’ visuals and animations are clever and affecting: medieval depictions of plague doctors and anatomy charts, night skies, falling rain and text directly drawn from actual letters or newspaper articles of the day.

Composer and musician Biddy Connor accompanies the piece throughout on piano, violin and, uniquely, the saw. Her score is exemplary and adds an emotional and mesmerising depth to the performance.

Contagion’s Kiss is a clever, unusual and beautiful piece of theatre whose dark historical truths still have resonance today.

Business Unusual & Brown’s Mart Theatre: Contagion’s Kiss, co-writer, creative producer, performer Nicola Fearn, director, co-writer Sarah Cathcart, Brown’s Mart Theatre, Darwin 4-16 June

RealTime issue #116 Aug-Sept 2013 pg. 42

© Gail Evans; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

19 August 2013