War and theatre by other means

Keith Gallasch: version 1.0, The Vehicle Failed to Stop

Jane Phegan, Olivia Stambouliah, The Vehicle Failed to Stop, Version 1.0

Jane Phegan, Olivia Stambouliah, The Vehicle Failed to Stop, Version 1.0

Jane Phegan, Olivia Stambouliah, The Vehicle Failed to Stop, Version 1.0

The legacy of the Iraq War lives on in endless killing generated by an invasion predicated on lies and characterised by mismanagement—including dissolving the police force and army—and the realisation of an opportunistic Western fantasy of the country as a free market totally open to its invaders. Version 1.0’s Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue (2007) devastatingly revealed the bribery and cover-ups rooted in the still unfolding Australian Wheat Board “Oil for Wheat Scandal.”

The company ‘revisits’ Iraq in The Vehicle Failed to Stop, focusing on an incident—the killing of a woman and her friend by outsourced security forces—that embodies what many people in the region must see as further Western terror. The corruption of Halliburton and the violence perpetrated by Blackwater’s mercenaries are well documented, but the Australian connection is less well known, and while not the focus of this production it’s certainly discomfiting to reflect on. Long-range rocket attacks and now drones (their operators literally working at home in the US thousands of miles away) distance Western governments and their populations not simply from the horrors of war but from feelings of responsibility for it, especially if it means fewer of our own troops are involved and harmed. This phenomenon is fast becoming war by other means.

Even more worrying is the revelation that employees in Blackwater and other contractors’ private armies are exempt from prosecution by Iraq’s legal system (much to that government’s consternation), as happened when taxi-driver Marou Awanis and Jeneva Jalal were shot by private security contractors working for the Australian-owned company Unity Resources Group for driving too close to a company vehicle in a secure section in Baghdad. An attempted prosecution in the US failed—outsourcing, it seems, makes the US Government not responsible for the actions of the companies it contracts.

Version 1.0 reveals not only the cruelty and mistruths inherent in contractors operating outside the law but also the suffering of some of their employees—fuel tank drivers forced to venture across unnecessarily dangerous terrain and dying with little or no compensation for their families. The production reveals the contractors’ militias as comprising “thrill-seeking cowboys” or men in a state of “kill or be killed” hyper-anxiety in which they are less than likely to adhere to the rules about how long they must wait before shooting—to the count of 10, with the word ‘thousand’ spoken between each number. This counting rule is chillingly delivered as part of aggressive corporate self-justification.

The Vehicle Failed to Stop opens with a single figure walking towards us from an adjoining workspace, light flaring behind him into the darkened theatre. A suited authority figure (Irving Gregory) of some kind, his repeated muttering is unintelligible until he draws quite near; we hear, “Kill or be killed,” a mantra for survival, or more likely, self-justification for killing in Iraq. The strangeness of his utterance is underlined by electric guitar harmonics and the sharp bell-tones of a struck tin; the musicians, in low, light, are lined along the wall. A car sits facing us on the dark open stage. A large video screen behind shows us the road from the driver’s point of view, in motion. In this very open space the vehicle appears vulnerable, whether occupied by contractors or the female victims—each pair played vigorously by Jane Phegan and Olivia Stambouliah, enacting the tensions felt and alertness needed on the road by both sides in tautly choreographed moves, sometimes seen enlarged on the screen above. When the ugly event we’ve been fearfully anticipating finally takes place, the car shockingly springs apart, doors dangling, boot and bonnet shaken loose. Later it will be re-assembled in seconds to capture a ghostly impression of death by gunfire with blood finger-painted on the bonnet.

These chilling images, counterpointed by low-key delivery of alarming facts and rationalisations (Gregory as various commanders and corporate heads) and vigorous physical enactments provided The Vehicle Failed to Stop with moments of power. But something was missing.

Some critical of the production declared it impersonal. We certainly learn little about the victims even though their family history has a legacy of tragedy not uncommon to the region. But I’ve never felt the ‘personal’ to be the hallmark of version 1.0 productions (even the atypical The Disappearances Project [2011]sees its theme through a kaleidoscope of unidentified personalities). Certainly the female figure at the centre of The Table of Knowledge (2011) warrants some compassion, and there are terribly sad tales told in Beautiful One Day (2012) by members of version 1.0’s collaborator, Ilbijerri Theatre. But the power of CMI, A Certain Maritime Incident (2004), The Wages of Spin (2005), Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue (2007) and much of The Table of Knowledge does not spring from the personal. Invariably their strength is drawn from selections from the public record and their ironic reframing: physically, vocally, spatially and technologically, without resorting to satire or mimicry. Version 1.0 has made us listen afresh to what we’ve already heard or seen in the media and re-contextualised it with revealing new information and, above all, a rich variety of inventive performative devices. These are drawn from and build on contemporary performance, performance art, video art and choral and other approaches to voicing, enacting and framing texts.

The Vehicle Failed to Stop displayed limited examples of this inventiveness. The production was neatly, at times tautly, constructed and busy, but an air of detachment emanated from a sameness of delivery, recurrent hyper-physicality (an extended passage with a soldier running repeatedly up and downstage failed to register) and some design superfluity (a row of human-shaped targets seemed merely functional rather than powerfully symbolic). The result was a fragmentary experience: the information made me want to care, but version 1.0’s peculiar capacity to alarm its audiences and at the same time implicate them was not felt. The Unity Resources Group is an Australian company. Version 1.0’s greatest strength has been to home in on Australian institutions and issues of the moment; CMI and Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue pointed the finger and targeted blame, as did Table of Knowledge.

The Vehicle Failed to Stop, for all the specificity of the 2003 incident which prompted it, did not feel as focused or as current as its predecessors. Certainly it informed us of the continued expansion of security outsourcing, its neo-liberal economic foundations (Milton Friedman is quoted in the opening), lack of legal redress for victims and ‘occupied’ states either within their borders or in the US and the consistently growing numbers of the dead. But it was as if these were all happening somewhere else, not really connected with Australia, resulting in an ensuing sense of sadness and helplessness, not the anger or bewilderment or outraged laughter triggered by others of the company’s works. That it was ably performed—supported by a strong live musical composition—is not in doubt, but The Vehicle Failed to Stop lacked version 1.0’s usual incisiveness and wit, and not least the ironic framing it has so deftly and effectively employed over many years. The diffuse, if much-praised, Beautiful One Day was similarly problematic.

With its courageous vision, version 1.0 has radically expanded Australian theatre, making us think with productions that directly and unashamedly tackle large, often national, issues with great concision and, amazingly, mostly without us feeling we’ve been hectored or short-changed with generalisations. I hope the company can sustain its vision and further advance its realisation; the light that version1.0 casts on contemporary politics is much needed in these darkening times.

version 1.0, The Vehicle Failed to Stop, devisors Sean Bacon, Irving Gregory, Jane Phegan, Paul Prestipino, Kym Vercoe and Olivia Stambouliah, video Sean Bacon, composer Paul Prestipino, dramaturg Deborah Pollard, lighting Frank Mainoo, Carriageworks, Sydney, 15-26 Oct

RealTime issue #118 Dec-Jan 2013 pg. 39

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

9 December 2013