The Raven

The Raven

Laura Kwiatkowski and Metro Arts Independents

Sue Benner Theatre 

07th – 31st March 

We’re at Metro Arts Theatre, where we know from experience that anything can happen. We’ve been asked to follow the producer, Laura Kwiatkowski, around to the back of the theatre. Cool. Following instruction, we remove our shoes and toss them, along with phones, bags and any other personal items, into milk crates before we enter the dark space. And by dark, I mean uneasy pitch black. QTC’s Artistic Director, Wesley Enoch, is the (un)lucky sucker to go first. I follow him and, as well as thinking of that terrific TED talk about how to start a movement (it’s ME they’re following, now that I’m following the leader), that little ordinary audience member’s voice in my head says, “Holy crap, it’s dark in here!” It also occurs to me that we’re on the stage. Well, we must be, because we’ve come in via the Tradies’ Entrance…and stepped directly into the MUD. That’s right. I was prepared for it but not, you know? Like the shock of seeing and squelching into DRIFT restaurant last year, after the floods, the mud across the bridge reaching the tops of my wellies as I walked comically through it; this mud was not so deep but it’s funny, isn’t it? The way your senses recall more of an experience before your head does? Beneath my bare feet was the cold, wet, compressed earth and my immediate thoughts were, “God, what a mess. What have they had to suffer?”

I almost expected to smell that same stench again. Feeling ready now, listening to the first strains of the live-mixed soundscape (Daniel Huey), processing all of that in a couple of moments, I decided to breathe and surrender (something my beautiful hippie healer friends keep telling me to do this year. I was quite pleased then – proud of myself – to surrender so early in the piece). Speaking of which, I don’t know if anybody else noticed, but it was the eve of the full moon and this had the potential to be a real earthing experience.

As soft light comes up (Lighting Designer Whitney Eglington), I become aware of sculptural structures all around me; ornately twisted and tangled wire designs, reaching cylindrically towards the ceiling and placed randomly like trees, in the way I imagine a “contemporary” version of Where the Wild Things Are might be staged…by an extremely ambitious and resourceful teacher in Julia Creek perhaps, with its jungle of chicken wire and white boxes. Appropriately, Melody Woodnutt is listed as Installation Artist in the program, rather than being awarded the more usual title of Designer.

Edgar Allan Poe (Robbie O’Brien), our host for the evening, welcomes us, his voice coming from somewhere in the semi-darkness. He invites us to sit and sup with him. The dinner table is such an intimate setting, don’t you think? The setting for all manner of sins and any depth of sadness, surrounded as we are, by the chaos of Poe’s kitchen and drawing room furniture, haphazardly placed alongside one length of the table and covered in books and pages. Tattered, yellowed pages are also strewn across our table, making an odd centrepiece, the likes of which would never be sanctioned by Better Homes and Gardens. Not only has Poe invited us to sit with him but also, to contribute to the creation of a masterpiece, his latest poetic piece. With this device, commonly referred to in The Biz as Audience Interaction 101, we are ready to take a journey of a different kind.

Lulled into the first of a number of participatory moments, we offer gifts of words, thoughts, images…Poe is so humble and lovely we can’t help but help him in his task. He accepts some offers and responds almost violently to others; “You don’t know about it!” About what? Love? Death? Loneliness? I don’t remember. It was important to Poe and has left us a bit bewildered.

Robbie O’Brien & Erika Field. Image by Leesa Connelly

Lenore (Erika Field); has been sitting behind us on top of a cupboard, in the darkness the whole time (she must have been or we would have heard the rustle of her taffeta frock as she entered). She brings child-like playfulness and a sense of innocence to all that is dark and death-like. Time stretches, skips a beat (or is it a decade?), turns back on itself and reveals, in twists and turns, the extent of Poe’s loneliness, having lost the love of his life, his wife, Virgina.

The Raven (Amy Wollstein) is at once the physical presence and destructive force that is needed. Props to the Body Artist, whose black and green design Wollstein paints upon her own skin in preparation for each performance. Her physicality is Butoh influenced and her intense energy drives much of the action. We are invited to get in on the action too, though only just; a game of Marco Polo and then one of hide and seek become opportunities to take up a different viewpoint of the chase that ensues. We leave our seats, move to another place and continue to watch the action. Darting between the guests, the set pieces and in and out of the space, Fields and Wollstein tease O’Brien and blur the boundaries between those tricky remembered relationships: friends, lovers, cousins…in the hands of another kind of director, we might have born witness to a lesbian tangle of limbs and lips! What? Well, we might have! My point is that at this point, the play (and the playfulness within it) could have gone anywhere.

As the games begin to imitate life, we are left just outside of them, to witness events, my hope that we might develop further, any empathy for the characters, dashed. I feel like I’m Abi Kirk, standing in a strange old house in The Rocks, staring at Beatie Bow and not sure how to get home but happy to be a part of the family while I’m here.

This theatre is not so experiential. Not as much as we’ve been led to believe anyway, but even so, it makes for great interactive theatre for beginners. As director, Thomas Quirk explains to me after the show, it’s “audience considered theatre”. If you’re an impro pro or accustomed to being the front row volunteer, it’s really just a bit of gentle voyeurism for those who don’t mind getting their feet dirty (don’t worry, you get the chance to cleanse them, as ritualistically as you like, at the conclusion of the performance). And that’s fine. But it’s a shame that so few people will see it and what I’d like to see in a future creative development phase (as I feel sure there must be another due), is the theatre opened up so those who prefer the voyeur role can choose to play it and purchase a ticket to sit and watch the piece, without the confrontation that comes from closer proximity. The Raven, its content and its gothic style are indeed, for a select audience. It’s not a commercial enterprise; it was never going to be and sure, it need never be.

The most important and exciting thing about this show is that it would not have happened if it were not for Metro Arts and their Independents program. This producer and director, supported by Liz Burcham and her team at Metro Arts, are willing, after ten years of the program, to take the “bigger, braver risks”, which have been so much the topic of local conversation lately. In a pretty conservative mainstream landscape, Metro Arts provides the only independent voice who is ceaselessly shouting out loud and, with fire in their bellies and a mischievous gleam in their eyes, standing proudly behind a dedicated policy that supports the ongoing development of bold, brave, interesting and amazing IDEAS.

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