Unsettling realities

Zsuzsanna Soboslay: Clare Dyson, Constructed Realities

Avril Huddy, Constructed Realities

Avril Huddy, Constructed Realities

Avril Huddy, Constructed Realities

It’s hard, amidst the incendiary alarm of Canberra, to settle down to write. I imagine the ceiling catching fire, the intolerable heat, getting the children out in time. Of course, for many, this is not an act of imagination: I feel a strange guilt queuing at the shops beside a couple who have lost everything, their clothes still charred, their bodies carrying the stories of what’s been lost.

To see, to have seen a performance in these circumstances—particularly one about landscape and identity, soil and soul—puts pressure on the work’s tone and meaning; perhaps all theatre events, to be deeply of relevance and value, need to match and meet this pressure, meet circumstance. We are already asked to see more than enough. Sometimes, in performance, we are asked to see too little. The endurance of seeing too little is sometimes as difficult as viewing too much.

In Constructed Realities we are led, ostensibly, inside-out, through the theatre’s back-end and bowels. The question “What is it to be Australian?” is answered in images ranging from mounds of ochred soil, to a tea party, city buildings, squares of grass, an immigrant’s remembered garden. Verbal answers are also given via videoed interviews: young faces cite coast-hugging cities, blank interiors. “My country’s soul is a stranger”, writes the quoted poet. I wish the work that follows would seriously critique the lack of depth in these replies.

This is a work at once so resolutely anthropocentric (consider the 95% of the bush reserve’s animals that died) yet sets up the human subject as mere outline: ballgowns, suitcoats, shadows chalked on the floor. We are not singing up the land here, nor digging into our psyches; we may follow in a dancer’s footprints as we promenade behind her, but the parameters are as strictly drawn as the tidy wooden bevels holding in the sand. A dancer’s grief at the burnt-out shell of her house is played like a model walking benignly through some strange decor. And though we are sprayed with water simulating a rainshower, the timing of our sensory experience is strictly limited and controlled. We walk past, through and around vignettes that are not given the chance to grab us, touch us, envelop or confront; this is landscape, like a zoo, behind bars.

This would not be so troublesome, perhaps, if not for the aspirations indicated by the program quotes by Stephanie Radok, Randolph Stow and most problematically, David Tacey, whose Edge of the Sacred is a highly-regarded tome that pleas for White Australia to stop ignoring both the landscape and its own unconscious. In Constructed Realities ideas of edge and interior are maintained rather than challenged, much as the answers given by interviewees reflect on the fun of the shore and the “too big” question of the inside.

I find another paragraph in Tacey, one not so useful to the choreographer’s goal:

‘Australian settlers have to feel unsettled; that is the beginning of our maturation process and the seed of real cultural wisdom. It is only by feeling unsettled that we begin to feel the psychic gap between society and nature, between our rational conscious attitudes and our more elemental…forces.’

This signals disruption, syncopation, arrhythmia, at the very least, surprise; instead we are given evenness, regulated viewing time and all too often the coy steadiness of a model’s smile.

There is no punctum where the unconscious or landscape really penetrates, activates, transforms (bodies, words), assaults, disappoints. The attractive dancerliness to most of the actions, a consistent separation of voiceover and action and the fact that the landscape is implicitly feminine (an all-female cast, except one male on video) need serious interrogation. I desperately want something fresh in this work: soil-mounds and taped interviews are already well known and indeed superlatively executed in both the National Gallery and the Museum. Of all places, why be imitative of something so well done in the city’s permanent, long-standing exhibits? It doesn’t make sense. What are the real questions being asked here?

That said, the piece is gently, if not deeply, evocative of simpler and more obvious aspects of landscape, with some pleasing and technically skilled sequences that cohere into an even-toned, unified aesthetic. But that is not the cry of my “strange soul” (Stow) trying to know itself anew, particularly not in this city, in these times.

Constructed Realities, New performance work/promenade theatre; concept, choreography and direction Clare Dyson, lighting Mark Dyson, landscape geologist Steve Hill, performers Avril Huddy, Katie Joel, Tammy Meeuwissen, Lisa Faalafi and Fez Faanana, lightbox Susan Lincoln, writer Gordon White, sound Kimmo Vernonnen, costume Bianca Seville & Loraine Meeuwissen; Canberra Theatre Centre, Jan 9-11, 15-18

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 42

© Zsuzsanna Soboslay; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2003