tribute to an outlaw

tony reck at the nightshift celebration

Lindzee & Steve [Wilkinson] under the Brooklyn Bridge

Lindzee & Steve [Wilkinson] under the Brooklyn Bridge

Lindzee & Steve [Wilkinson] under the Brooklyn Bridge

LINDZEE SMITH DIED LAST YEAR, BUT I SWEAR TO YOU I CAN SEE HIS FACE IN A PROJECTED IMAGE OF LABYRINTHINE IRON BARS SPLAYED ACROSS LA MAMA’S REAR WALL. THE SPIRIT OF THE FORMER OCEAN GROVE IRON MAN PERVADES THIS PRODUCTION: IF NOT IN ITS COMPLEX ENTANGLEMENT OF JAIL CELL DOORS, THEN IN ITS IDIOSYNCRATIC PRODUCTION STYLE. AN URGENT NEED TO EXPRESS THE INNER LIVES OF THOSE RESIDING OUTSIDE THE LAW DRIVES THIS TRIBUTE—SMITH, A MAN WHO WRENCHED ART FROM LIFE’S GURGLING AND GROANING, AND REFUSED TO LET GO.

This celebration of Nightshift, the 1970s offshoot of the Australian Performing Group (APG), consists of three plays and two films by lifelong Smith collaborators Phil Motherwell and Tim Burns. The plays comprise the earlier part of the show, but it’s best to begin any assessment with the final film of the night, Burns’ Thus Went Phillipa. This brutal exploration makes explicit Smith’s obsession with the link between art and life: the same obsession that inflects Motherwell’s writing with its poetic nuance. A gaunt Smith is shown smacked out in an Alphabet City squat. Watching him wield a blood filled syringe as he probes for a recalcitrant vein, Thus Went Phillipa comes across as a response to the collapse of Leftist politics, and a gradual awareness among its disciples that they were mistaken in their assumption that an unjust society could be transformed by direct action alone. Transformation must come from within and, even though the belief that heroin-induced dreams could precipitate this transformation was also misguided, Burns’ film displays a concern to explore an interior world: one exemplified by a dream-state junkie, Phillipa.

In contrast, Political Transmission is conceived as a Brechtian vision of the Left’s role in world affairs, particularly the fascist overthrow and 1973 assassination of Allende in Chile. Following an early diagnosis of lupus, the blood disease that eventually killed him, Smith is laid up in a New York hospital, his immune system ravaged by rampaging anti-bodies. Smith’s political diatribe heard voice-off is a didactic call to arms in response to a rise in fascism: an unhealthy political ideology attempting to overthrow a healthy social system. The film ends with a revitalised Smith catching a plane to Melbourne in preparation for some direct action of his own: a performance of Motherwell’s radical play Dreamers of the Absolute.

Motherwell himself then appears on stage, introducing three monologues rejigged for ensemble performance. Actor Isaac Drandich is a conduit for our electrified attention in his performance of The Fitzroy Yank. Ambiguous in its representation of a raconteur imprisoned by the mania of outrageous dreams, Drandich’s articulation of the Yank suggests an actor of twice his experience. But it’s when the ensemble comes together in The Native Rose and Steal Away Home, that Burns’ films, Motherwell’s plays, and Smith’s omnipotent spectral presence unite in an unlikely collision of the biographical and the highly imaginative.

In The Native Rose, Shiralee Hood delivers each line directly to the audience. The setting is a park on Anzac Parade in Sydney. The dope shootin’ and destroyed Rose finds communion on the street in the shape of damaged soldiers returning from World War II and a string of like-minded conspirators who thieve and drown their disfigured lives under the disapproving eye of a statue of Captain Cook. Equally at home in Motherwell’s inner suburban milieu, or Burns’ New York, it’s the lives of the disenfranchised transforming despair into hope that underscore Nightshift’s confronting directorial style.

And so it is in Steal Away Home that actor Jack Charles discovers his past is also present in the future. Charles’ truant childhood becomes an acute expression of the poetry drawn from drab Housing Commission homes, and a life that knows no other angle than that of living on the edge. So when Billy Tisdall dons a judge’s wig and indignantly declares to Charles, “You’ve robbed County Court Judges…”, the mischievous giggle from Jack’s tiny frame presents not just as a healthy disrespect for the dubious institution of the law, but as a response to Aboriginal dispossession. By having his past stolen from him, Charles has instinctively chosen to Steal Away Home.

Later, when riding my bicycle through Lindzee Smith’s old stomping ground, I sense his spirit in the streets. Although largely unrecognised, and despised by the mainstream, his eyes smile bright in the dark urban night. The lyricism of the tribute at La Mama has roused him from the earth, exposing the poetic heart of Nightshift.

Nightshift, writer, director Phil Motherwell, filmmaker Tim Burns, performers Lindzee Smith (on film), Isaac Drandich, Gary Carter, Shiralee Hood, Jack Charles, Billy Tisdall, projection Ian De Gruchy, music Joe Dolce, lighting Gabriel Townsend; La Mama, Melbourne, March 12-23

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 37

© Tony Reck; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2008