The Danger Ensemble
With support from Judith Wright Centre’s Fresh Ground program
Judith Wright Centre
July 3 – 12 2014
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
“Someone shot you in the head, and the bits of your brain that slid down the wall to land on the floor is what you’ve made this show with.”
The design elements are beautiful (Designers Benjamin Hughes & Nathalie Ryner), the first ten minutes – otherworldly beautiful – and then, once we’ve heard from two tour guides (not your usual suspects and serving in this moment as Greek Chorus) about Caligula’s character and infamous short reign over the Roman Empire, all descends into chaos. We transcend time and place to find ourselves lost somewhere between “history” and the fetish clubs of the 21st century. It’s loose, it’s a little wicked, and it’s not anything at all like you might expect, even if you thought you were familiar with The Danger Ensemble’s work. And that’s the thing.
The Danger Ensemble is the only company in the place doing this work. It’s bold and cheeky, and it’s quite often crass and downright revolting (it’s no secret that I disliked Sons of Sin), but it’s being made and THAT is a beautiful thing.
The work itself usually contains, on some level, a whole lot of brutality, sensuality, classically derived text, and new interpretations of ancient beliefs or popular opinions or bits of history. This work, just as Loco Maricon Amour did, boasts moments of immense beauty, and subtlety too. The images conjured (and they are conjured, as if by magic; as I’ve noted before, Steven Mitchell Wright’s expertise in painting pictures on stage is impressive), are capable of affecting us in a way that only art can. Each piece or tiny moment is unique and we respond to it in such a personal way that sometimes the effect is difficult to describe. Sometimes, when I’m writing up a show like this, I just wish you’d been there. You need to get out more! Experience the work!
Had you been there, you might have breathed more quietly, or held your breath, or tried not to visibly squirm, or tried to stop yourself from digging your nails into the palm of your hand as the beating of your heart quickened…
Have you ever sat through a delivery boy’s litany on the pros and cons of fisting (Stephen Quinn), or listened to the deadpan delivery from a woman wearing the horns of Beelzebub (Lucinda Shaw) on how to skin an animal while the “animal” twitches and tenses and dances and stumbles and eventually dies in front of you, collapsing into a deep pool of plastic party cups? No? See? You just don’t know how you’ll respond to that! How good is live theatre!?
The cast has been literally cast to create white plaster torsos that hang from the gods and rise to reveal the actors behind them, only to stop and hang in mid air, to look over the strange, sordid action that follows. The effect is a haunting reminder that somebody, whether or not we believe it to be a pantheon of gods, is always watching. We are, each of us, responsible for the way we choose to feel but we realise too that our words and actions have an impact on those around us.
DRIVE CAREFULLY, PEOPLE.
Sometimes while Sam drives I write, and as I write I’m grateful the P Plater in front of us has wrenched himself back onto the highway instead of dying in the gutter tonight. How close we can come to death. How sad it is that we need these reminders to truly value our lives. And then there are those who ignore the reminders and continue to live ungratefully, recklessly, selfishly, and viciously. They make me sick. And then I remember I can try not to feel disgusted by their apathy for the feelings of others. Try to frame it differently. Try to feel compassion. Poor, stupid people who go through life hurting others… That’s right, isn’t it?
An entire section of Caligula (and, it seems, the Dharma), has been completely lost on me; it’s almost a stand-up comedy segment comprising Chris Beckey and Nerida Matthaei using hand held mics to hold a rather odd conversation about the ways she wishes to be hurt by him.
I want you to hit me with your car.
Really? YOU WANT HIM TO HIT YOU WITH HIS CAR. Who would want that? Is it a metaphor? Is it a kiss with a fist?
It made me think of a few things, including another song, you know, the Swedes singing about driving a car into a bridge? I’m appalled that Poppy knows the lyrics and we’ve talked about how crazy and ungrateful it is that she wouldn’t even care, about her life, about other peoples lives, about what happens in the lives of the people she leaves behind… I also think of an ex-boyfriend who was genuinely an emo (I know, what was I thinking? I’m actually a beach baby! And I love happy endings!), and that stupidly disturbing and unnecessarily revoltingly violent film, which I never finished watching and never will, Irreversible.
There’s the thought too that Nerida Matthaei’s choreography makes Caligula a convincing “dance theatre” piece (it’s a term that seems to be bandied about a bit at the moment), as much as it is a work of theatre or contemporary performance art. I can imagine this show performed in all its parts at various times of the day and night in a place like MONA.
I enjoyed Beckey’s voice – rich and salubrious – vocally and physically his is a consummate performance as always, right to the glittery end. And the twitching, dying movement sequence mentioned earlier, performed by Gabriel Comerford, will be sure to sear some sort of cruel image on your mind so you’ll certainly remember him the next time you see him (or hear about Anna Krien’s Us and Them). Even without Steven Mitchell Wright on stage – he cut his role the day before opening, as it seemed superfluous – this is another bold configuration of one of the country’s most confident, most consistently challenging creative companies. What we’re seeing here is the earliest version of this piece, thanks to The Judy’s Fresh Ground program; it’s a slightly messy birth but we know that whatever this baby looks like in the first instance, we’ll give it a chance.
Caligula comes to us at the perfect time, challenging our perceptions of what art is, what is acceptable to see and to talk about in public, and what parallels are to be drawn between historical and current leaders and followers. Power, wealth, sex, power. Power. Who else is asking the questions? Who else is presenting multiple possible answers for us to discuss and digest?
It’s true (and unfortunate) that The Danger Ensemble flirts with financial ruin when compared to the obvious commercial successes of our pretty, lovely, light and fluffy theatre companies but then, why compare? The work is unapologetic, pushing the proverbial boundaries and promising nothing at this stage but a unique night out, which you certainly won’t forget but you might not want to remember. Regardless, let’s see more of it!