Posts Tagged ‘Metro Arts

08
Dec
18

Crunch Time

 

Crunch Time

Metro Arts & Counterpilot

TAFE South Brisbane Norman Price Theatre

December 5 – 15 2018

 

Reviewed by Shannon John Miller

 

 

In a dark chamber at the Norman Price Theatre, South Brisbane TAFE, seven diners including myself are seated at a table. The surface undulates with a virtual table cloth, projected from technology above. Waiters stand at attention against dark walls, and director Nathan Sibthorpe sits at a computer console nearby. Some diners have come together, however mostly we’re strangers, and we attempt awkward introductions and polite chit-chat as we wait.

 

The Good The Bad and The Ugly by Morricone underscores a sudden flurry of animated activity on the table. The pre-recorded voice of Lauren Jackson explains the rules of the game. We’re given tokens; a ‘tick in a box’ – a branded icon of Crunch Time created on a 3D printer. The projector throws selections upon the table, and we place our tokens on our respective choices, the system then calculating our consensus. We’re told the majority have voted for sparkling water. We then vote similarly on red wine, white wine, or beer.

 

Images of a commercial kitchen appear in virtual plates on the table, and we’re introduced to the guest, and self-confessed mediocre cook, Fiona Ward, a manager with Queensland Performing Arts Centre. She tells us that she’s eight metres away in a kitchen ready to prepare our meals. While charming and impromptu, she reads as if unrehearsed, from either cue cards or teleprompt off-camera. Her dialogue, deliberately scripted and superficial, as if to reference the banal discourse of Australian TV cooking shows such as Huey’s Cooking Adventures, and Good Chef Bad Chef.

 

We vote on the ingredients for a starter, ultimately settling on egg, rice paper rolls, corn, coriander and soy sauce. Ingredients are then submitted to the kitchen for a sort of mystery box test for Ward, (who has helpers) while, Jackson’s voice-over coldly asks us at random about our food experiences, expectations, favourite foods, and allergies. We’re then presented with our dishes, and dine on the creations of our democratic making. The structure is then repeated over five courses.

 

Uniquely immersive and as an interactive dining experience, this is a slick, digital confluence of a board game, a game show, and a reality cooking show. As a participant it’s not hard to imagine the concept’s possibilities if applied to broader domestic, and consumer products like a restaurant, or a home entertainment system.

 

Execution of the sound engineering and multi-media technology are of the highest order, extremely clever and genuinely exciting to engage with. Participants seemed to genuinely enjoy the evening. However, as there were no conventional narrative or dramatic elements, the content and strength of the show is reliant, in part, on the diner’s social skills and interactions to fill gaps. With Jackson’s pre-recorded voice over, and Ward’s teleprompter live-feed, diners turn inward to escape the game’s digital isolation and superficial, consumer cultural aspects.

 

Subsequent dishes, again democratically elected by us, included a pumpkin and coconut cream mash with paprika chickpeas and carrot, seasoned beef strips with rosemary and couscous, a deconstructed Hawaiian pizza, and a Kahlua, liquorice and ice cream thickshake. Meanwhile, we’re treated to a fantastic sound system of eclectic music: Jazz, Beethoven’s 9th, Chopin’s Waltz in C# Minor, Verdi’s’ Requiem.

 

The food is lacklustre, and no offence to Ward; we know she’s chosen for political reasons. The program blurb says each performance has nominated a particular individual from a sphere of political or artistic influence to play cook. However, for this reason she is underutilised, relegated to the kitchen, reading meaninglessly from cue cards, and preparing our meals without political contribution. Given the old maxim one should never discuss politics at the dinner table, I concede this was avoided at risk of being divisive and unfun. Nevertheless, here we are, at a show which purports to be premised on dining and the politics of modern democracy. Neither of which are boldly executed.   

 

The main character here is the technology, and Crunch Time feels like a pilot concept with the capability of sitting within a much greater dramatic idea. Rather than a conventional show, it’s more a vehicle showcasing the potential of the interactive technology, which was truly mesmerising. However, with some better plotting, and dramaturgy, the structure could be lifted from its monotonous and predictable repetition, in which participants are busied answering arbitrary questions about capsicum or dill.

 

Going over two hours, the experience could’ve been shorter with fewer courses, and with more activities that facilitated interaction and debate. While the show’s underpinning influences may have been political tribalism and the disillusion of democracy, those concepts were seemingly absent.

 

In his program note, Director, Nathan Sibthorpe describes the catalyst for Crunch Time, “…we saw general populations vote for Trump, Brexit and the return of One Nation. I was deeply shocked by all three. I couldn’t find anyone in my immediate community who supported these ideologies!”

 

At one point during the evening, a diner confessed to having a dairy intolerance, even sharing her medication as proof. Nevertheless, the group, unempathetic to her appeals, voted for cheddar. What does this say about democracy? About us? Sibthorpe opines, “…democracy demands that we listen to the people that we don’t know. It demands we cooperate. Try to understand. At the end of the day, we’re all eating at the same table and we all have to eat!”

 

While foreshadowing a change in the way we understand theatre, Crunch Time is a terrific concept show. While seemingly dishing up consumer friendly fluff, it poses a foreboding conundrum about the underpinning narcissism lurking behind the veil of democracy.

05
Sep
18

Spring Awakening

Spring Awakening

Underground Broadway

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

August 23 – September 8 2018

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

 

 

A Children’s Tragedy…

 

What serves each of us best is what serves all of us…

 

Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Spring Awakening, based on the controversial drama by Frank Wedekind, written in 1891 though not staged until 1906 (and not performed in English until 1917 in New York City, when it was deemed pornographic and closed after just one show), successfully opened on Broadway in 2006.

 

Directed by Michael Mayer and choreographed by Bill T. Jones, the acclaimed original production went on to win eight Tony Awards including Best Original Score and Best Musical, and launched the careers of Lea Michelle and Jonathan Groff as Wendla and Melchior, doomed teens drawn to each other in a world where parents, ministers and teachers smother that next generation in silence and shame. With its themes of puberty, fantasy, masturbation, depression, death, grief, sex, suicide, abuse, forced teen abortion, control and censorship (ironically, the 2006 Tony Award performance was heavily censored!), it’s no wonder schools opt to stay away from this dark show. Originally much darker, since the NYC workshops preceding the Broadway opening, there’s no longer a rape implied at the end of Act 1. Instead, this issue, as prevalent as ever, is addressed by Ilsa (Ruby Clark, lovely in this role, proving her versatility after a couple of turns at Maureen in RENT and Rizzo in Grease: The Arena Experience), and Martha (Jordan Malone, back after Understudy Productions’ BARE and next, joining the professional touring cast of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) in The Dark I Know Well.

 

 

Tim Hill’s Spring Awakening opens innocently, quietly and gently leading us into the sneaky little showstopper, a highlight of this production, Mama Who Bore Me, featuring the entire fierce female contingent of this stellar cast from Underground Broadway, coming together in solidarity to stomp and sing and state their place, i.e. their confusion and frustration as young women in the world without the knowledge they need to stay safe and strong. Ruby Clark, Jordan Malone, Jacqui McLaren, Monique Dawes and Maddison McDonald are uniformly excellent in this powerful and inspiring anti-anthem of the sisterhood. We get the sense that nothing can stop them but…

 

BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH

 

Jacqui Mclaren (Wendla) elicits shivers in her first simple moments on the small Sue Benner stage, sitting as still as a porcelain doll, seemingly just as fragile, but not, building up the courage to ask Mama to let her in on the secrets of life, and later discovering the ecstasy and horror for herself. In McLaren’s take on Wendla we see the embodiment of the maiden archetype and sadly – spoiler – she never has the chance to fully embrace that energy, or to get a look in on the mother or crone. 

 

Not condoning or encouraging any more boot Broadway footage online ever, of course, but watch Deaf West’s opening minutes here to experience additional layers to this and every other scene. Seriously. Deaf West will change your musical theatre life.

 

 

No more spoilers, but Mclaren is missing a final scream of terror as she’s taken away; this omission is likely the director’s call. There are other missteps, including a slap across the face that fails to make us squirm, the birch branch caning that  fails to make us gasp, and a gunshot represented by a snap to black, without the sound effect…a-hem. Chekhov, anyone? Even with Wes Bluff’s lights, Ben Murray’s sound and choreography by Deanna Castellana, sans these disturbing images, some of the pivotal moments, landing like stones in the pit of our stomachs, this production lacks a little intensity. I came away with a similar feeling after Hill’s RENT. Is it just me? Is it just a matter now though, of trusting the actors to delve deeper, push further, play around a little more, take a little more time in the process to discover the full extent of the breath, and the actual natural responses and timing for the stage? This does take time, a careful eye and brave hearts – guts – all round. Despite its slightly lighter, nicer treatment (others will certainly consider it a shocking show, sure, of course), Spring Awakening is undoubtedly Hill’s most astute direction to date, with Act 1 offering the most attention to detail. Having said that, the reprise of The Word of Your Body and the fraught scene embedded within Whispering are both beautifully precise. Dominic Woodhead’s musical direction perfectly supports both the upbeat and more measured, melancholy pieces.

 

Elise Grieg affirms her place towards the top of the Brisbane tree, playing every female adult (as Melchior’s mother, refreshingly real), and as every male adult, James Shaw demonstrates again that he can play the pious, the ridiculous and the serious with aplomb. Their elderly scholarly characters are deliberately larger than life, terrifying and amusing in that sickening what-are-you-gonna’-do-about-it way. I don’t love them; it could be considered another missed opportunity to highlight the subtle horror of the reality these kids are in, no need for caricatures but instead, an undercurrent…

 

Meanwhile, poor Moritz.

 

 

Oliver Lacey is a properly despairing and angst-ridden Moritz in the best British punk rock way (at the root of anger and sadness there is fear), Michael Nunn a beautiful, sensitive Ernst and Tim Carroll a delightfully wicked and seductive, street smart Hanschen. Harrison Aston, fresh from 8 months of touring life with Brainstorm Productions, has a distinctly Credence look and manner about him, as he navigates his way through the mire of adult expectations. Not a single member of this company goes as far as they can go, but this slightly sanitised staging is typical of what we’ve been seeing for a little while again, in fact, since Oscar Production Co was Oscar Theatre Co, and presented both Spring Awakening and Next to Normal in the most nonchalant and quietly confident way, challenging performers and patrons to take a good, hard look at themselves – ourselves – by taking those stories into a place of extreme discomfort. If you were there, you know. If not, if you’re a snapchatcat/millenial, perhaps this Spring Awakening is the most disturbing, and darkly exciting and challenging thing you’ve seen in a theatre. And that’s fine. 

 

 

Claire McFadyen’s beautifully realised Tim Burton-esque silently screaming lightbulb tree also points to the desire of this company to really provoke, and like the maiden / crone optical illusion, we can only see what we see in it, in the same way we each have our unique experience of every live show. So I want to be clear that it’s not a case of the talent not being evident, but of the impact of the storytelling falling short of expectations.

 

I feel like we’ve seen the prelude now; this year has been just the beginning for this company, and for these performers, who are able and probably willing, to go deeper and darker yet. Whether Tim Hill is prepared to take them there, or go there himself remains to be seen. There’s no denying that Underground Broadway has been blurring the lines between amateur and professional performance with regular industry nights since 2016 featuring professional performing artists and local emerging stars, making this company well worth following.

 

We’re certainly ready for what’s next.

 

 

13
Mar
18

Neurosis

 

Neurosis

Metro Arts Lumen Room

March 8 – 24 2018

 

Reviewed by Claire Harding

 

Neurosis is a collaborative work of ten short plays, written by three Brisbane playwrights, Greg Andreas, Kate Fester and American writer, Daniel Guyton, and directed by Greg Andreas, Antonio Peluso and Jane Oliffe.

 

 

 

Neurosis is defined as a relatively mild mental illness and this collection of works deals with how our internal world is constructed by our external and environmental pressures, such as our upbringing and relationships. How our psychological workings are influenced by our conditionings of our immediate and global society, our relationships, cultural and religious beliefs to name a few. It questions how these external factors contribute to our internal navigation, forming our personalities and beliefs, our fears and fantasies on such topics as sexuality, love and death to name but a few, and how these beliefs shape our reality.

 

The writing and acting overall is of a high standard; a standout for me is Julia Johnson in The Captive by Greg Andreas, who creates an erotic fantasy version of a woman’s life while her husband is absent, which I felt a lot of married ‘captive’ people could relate to…a very titillating piece. Melanie Bolovan is also captivating in the solo piece Outskirts by Kate Fester, dealing with her sexuality and how one comes to terms with marrying the inner knowing to the outer wold, in coming out to parents and society at large. These short pieces are tied together with romantic musical interludes by French composer and musician Marc Auer, who has a smooth voice and great control of his guitar, giving the piece a romantic, dreamy overtone.

 

The setting is simplistic, within the Lumen Room in the old Metro Arts, a crumbled jigsaw of a building, with squeaky floor boards adding to the feeling that this collection of dramatic pieces was a construction in the works, and further work is needed on some pieces that, while interesting, are not necessarily entertaining, especially the timing and character changes in the final offering, which the young actors seemed to struggle to make sense of, drawing out the work. That aside though, this is a thought-provoking piece and overall, an entertaining evening.

12
Dec
17

Dance: A Double Bill

 

Dance: A Double Bill

Sarah Aiken & Rebecca Jensen

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

6 – 9 December 2017

 

Reviewed by Ruth Ridgway

 

Explorer looks at the material world in relation to the rapidly shifting digital world through an anti-humanist lens … An entitled explorer arrives in a half imagined world of formless potential, navigating a series of shortcuts simulating memories.

Rebecca Jensen

 

 

 

 

 

Sarah Aiken looks at how we live in the world, the versions of ourselves we curate, our ouptut, achievements and the versions that others hold of us; how much we control these variants, and how much they shape us.

Sarah Aiken

 

The two works on this program, Sarah Aiken’s Sarah Aiken (Tools for Personal Expansion) and Rebecca Jensen’s Explorer were both finalists in the Keir Choreographic Award for 2016. The Keir Foundation supports new and emerging practitioners across a range of art forms, including contemporary dance.

 

A leaf-blower, enormous pieces of fabric, two mysterious faceless figures, a ball of ice glowing with red light, a ladder, a dead tree branch, and an assemblage of ropes, plastic pipes, styrofoam, and a couple of kitchen bowls all make a surreal appearance in Explorer.

 

As the explorer, Jensen is a strong and striking figure, simply dressed in tracksuit pants and a T-shirt. She navigates a dreamlike path through this mysterious landscape, appearing to be unaware of the two beings (Michael McNab and Harrison Ritchie-Jones) who support her and shape her path.

 

McNab also created the sound for this work, with electronic siren-like noises, oscillating blares of sound, the leaf-blower, and performers hitting the floor, walls, and some of the props with drumsticks.

 

He and Ritchie-Jones work with Jensen to perform arresting physical feats, supporting her as she runs up a wall, and then ‘walks’ along the wall, lying across her partner’s shoulders.

 

Do the two men represent the ‘rapidly shifting digital world’ Jensen mentions in the program notes? They are completely dressed in white, including their heads, looking a little like fencers.

 

One then strips off this outer layer to reveal a similar costume, but made of pale blue fabric marbled in brown and orange. The same fabric, conveying an incongruous old-world elegance, forms a backdrop for Jensen and this figure.

 

It’s hard to interpret Explorer as the program notes describe – for example, ‘The landscape slips in and out of disappearance’ – but Jensen certainly conveys the sense of trying to find her way through a puzzling world, while calmly accepting its challenges.

 

The piece ends more mysteriously than it begins, with Jensen harnessing herself to a collection of random objects, and climbing the ladder towards the suspended ball of ice.

 

In Sarah Aiken’s eponymous work for three female dancers (Aiken herself, Claire Leske and Emily Robinson), her name is heard many times. Each dancer announces the name into a microphone as she appears, and the sound is recorded and played back over and over again, with other voices added later. Muffled bell-like chords are also part of the sound design by Daniel Arnott.

 

The three dancers are dressed in leggings and tops, each in a different shade of pink. The impression is of different attenuated versions of the same person, reinforced by the frequent use of movement in canon.

 

The movement is simple and naturalistic: walking, crawling, kneeling, raising the arms, sitting on the floor and using the hands to shuffle backwards …

 

The action culminates in one of the dancers filming the others, using a smartphone, and projections of the film distort the images, amusingly extending parts of the dancers’ bodies. This image is then carried through back to the dancers, with the arms of the pink costume being stretched to many times the length of human arms.

 

Some of the program notes about this piece are obscure, and grandiose. While Aiken may have intended, for example, that it ‘critiques the gendered occupation of space and the worship of progress, development and continual growth, observing what retracts as we reach further’, this was hard for me to see in the actual performance.

 

In presenting this season, Metro Arts is certainly fulfilling its purpose of championing contemporary arts, supporting artists and providing opportunities for them to show their work to new and existing audiences.

 

18
Nov
17

Spectate

 

SPECTATE

Counterpilot

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

November 7 – 8 2017

 

Reviewed by Amelia Walker

 

 

When you purchase a ticket to see a show, perhaps taking a friend or loved one along on a well-deserved night out, do you imagine that you’ve escaped the responsibilities of your day-to-day life?

 

Does a 90-minute production help you feel as if you’ve broken out of the shackles, the bars, or the straightjacket that locks you inside the monotony of a regular life?

 

Do you feel any guilt for your viewership?

 

Brisbane-based innovators of theatre, Counterpilot, have brought together elements of live performance, technology, and the flare of illusion in order create their trans media work, Spectate. Houdini, struggling through his final performance, is at the heart of the work, with intercutting flashes of his personal life, layers of commentary, and contemporary references framing his story.

Houdini may be known for creating spectacles of illusionary and wondrous feats, but Spectate unravels the mystery and reveals the trick: behind the smoke and mirrors is a man. A human man. And just like his audience, that man isn’t sure what to believe in either.

Counterpilot didn’t make the regular theatrical attempt to perfectly represent the narrative’s location through their set, saving the real ‘how did they do that’ reaction for their use of technology. This choice deflected focus from noticing how beautifully a costume was sewn, or how realistic a window appeared to be, and instead allowing me to observe the impressive nature of constructing a show like Spectate.

This use of technology has ensured that audiences not just consider what they are seeing, but evaluate why they are seeing it at all. Wearing headphones for the majority of the show, audiences are enrolled in layers of inner-dialogue from regular theatregoer characters. These people whose inner-thoughts I was privy to, had a life that could be physically interacted with. But whilst I could hear the coughs in the soundscape, and even text with an old friend of one of the characters, the show is an unusually isolating experience.

Journeying through the life of Houdini (Toby Martin) was a compelling look at how this man was at odds with his ability to create illusions but inability to believe in anything without evidence. However, this narrative didn’t capture me the way the inner-dialogue characters managed to. What kept me invested in the outcomes of Houdini’s performances was the evaluation of the role of an audience member escaping their regular life, who is ironically frustrated when the man regaled for his ability to escape, fails to deliver the magic.

The impressive optical illusions mainly constructed by Martin & Cameron Clark, in role as a stage technician, were all built onstage in plain view. Counterpilot weren’t trying to pull wool over eyes; they instead had me wonder why people wanted to be fooled in such a way in the first place. Where was the joy in seeing something you know is a trick?

 

I came to think that perhaps it is only human to want to escape a world where science leaves no room for doubt, no room for magic, and where the limitations of life can be despairing. This appeared to be the point of focussing on Houdini’s escape story; his obsession with dismantling faith with evidence only led him to despair.

 

Martin’s performance humanised a sensationalised man, and his depiction of surmounting stress was done subtly and effectively, rather than falling back on the descriptions delivered by the inner-dialogue character to carry the meaning. This wasn’t always the case with the illusions themselves, as the headset had to lead my experience of being discontent with the illusions Houdini was performing. The thread of the breakdown could have been woven into the set design so as to support Martin’s growing fatigue, but in all other facets the work dematerialised wondrously.

The project ambitiously interweaves live and pre-recorded sound and visuals throughout the on-stage performance not only to tell the story, but to point at what the artists are doing. Referencing the creation of theatre and the act of deciding to be an audience member may appear to be a message just for the arts community, but I would argue there’s a larger appeal.

 

 

Spectate suggests that it is not just an artist’s vice to want to escape the reality of life, but a human endeavour. Whether it be picking up a book, or watching TV, or creating art, we will find a way to leave behind our responsibilities, even at the cost of someone else’s’ safety and sanity. Perhaps we should feel guilty for this. Perhaps we shouldn’t ask a man who’s clearly swept up in his own issues to perform death-defying stunts so that we don’t have to think of the bills we have to pay later, or our work colleague we hate.

 

Although perhaps we can’t help ourselves.

 

I want more, and with Counterpilot’s promising body of work, I will certainly be looking to fill that desire.

28
May
17

Swallow

 

Swallow

Metro Arts & E.G.

Metro Arts Sue Benner Theatre

May 25 – June 3 2017

Reviewed by Stephanie Fitz-Henry & Elanora Ginardi

Who said smashing things up was a bad thing?

 

The fragility and abrasiveness of the human condition is reflected in the glass themes of Stef Smith’s award winning play SWALLOW.

Swallow is vast in the complex themes it explores; ideas about mental health, broken relationships, gender equality, transgender, happiness and acceptance.

A bird flies away, shattered glass lies everywhere, and a door is almost closed. None of these things are particularly important in and of themselves, but I guess we have to start somewhere in describing this outburst by Steff Smith.

The simple art of the stage design – the door, the shattered glass – symbolises the fragile lives of these three characters, discovering in their journey the need to be loved and accepted.

Swallow explores the chaotic ways in which three women continue to survive in the face of psychological and emotional suffering. Each character begins in isolation, disconnected from each other and the rest of society. In their struggle through darkness and confusion they occasionally find a glimmer of hope to keep them going.

Anna (Elise Greig) hasn’t stepped outside of her apartment for two years and is smashing her way through all of her belongings until there is nothing left. 

Rebecca (Julie Cotterell) lives a lonely existence after being dumped by her fiancé, and spends her time drinking away the pain and her physical and emotional scars.

Sam (Helen O’Leary) craves genuine connection and acceptance in the world as a man trapped inside a woman’s body.

The play is raw and challenging for audiences who need to use their imaginations and work a little harder to form their own ideas of what is happening. The experience is a personal one for each audience member. As the play commences, the characters articulate every thought and action in real time. They tell us because they have no one else to tell. They move and speak in isolation as they deliver their fragmented stories. They move around the stage until their paths cross at a point where connection and change is possible. Much of the action occurs downstage, in close proximity to the audience, creating a confronting space. The performances are very physical within bodies and within the performance space, particularly the performances of Greig and O’Leary. Each character’s body is an extension of their minds. Greig gives an engaging and convincing performance as the unstable Anna.

The performances are enhanced by Tony Byrne’s intelligent and perceptive sounds. The narrative told by the soundscape informs the audience and taps into the human psyche.

The minimalist set (concept by Kate Shearer, realised by Jo Grieg & Michael Jones) contains barricades of bundles of timber and broken glass of various sizes around the edges of the stage. These boundaries of desperation surround a raised platform with an illuminated door turned at a 45-degree angle to the audience. There is a strong sense of apprehension, after having ventured into a difficult and unpleasant place, somewhere none of us really want to be, but curiosity kicks in when we get an opportunity to gaze through windows into the lives of others.

The shattered mirrored glass, the rearrangement of the broken glass, the bird, and the closed door. The snow flakes, which are actual bird feathers…  

There is beauty in the grotesque and of the physical interpretation of the characters.

Smith’s text is poetic and her characters are complex and despairing. There is warmth and humour, despite moments of awkwardness.

The play moves through spaces of light and dark, humour and pain, loneliness and connection, courage and vulnerability. The choice to bring the work of an independent writer from overseas to Brisbane audiences is a credit to producers, Elise Grieg and Metro Arts.

Directed by Kate Shearer, Swallow is anchored by the commitment of three well-accomplished Brisbane performers, courageous and vulnerable. It hits as hard as it can hit with its harsh truth of human barriers, and the difficulty to break through them and be accepted.

28
Apr
17

ENGLAND

 

ENGLAND

Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts

Metro Arts Gallery

April 19 – 29 2017

 

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward / Meredith Walker

 

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LOOK.

The floor creaks comfortingly (or disturbingly perhaps, if it’s your first time here), and the walls are almost completely bare, except for selected works by up and coming Brisbane artists, their pieces, for me, neither relevant nor irrelevant to the play, which is about art and heart and perspective.

The ink on the concrete stairs has worn off in some places, barely reminding us of who lives here, and who lends support to the place. The lift is out of order. I never used it. But others need to…

I’m flying solo, as I often am in galleries, when I take myself off on an “artist’s date”, to gather myself and spend time in spaces dedicated to nourishing us, rather than robbing us of feeling, of seeing, of soul.

In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show I, Malvolio, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s An Oak Tree at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work ENGLAND, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like ENGLAND. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy take place to part the crowd and take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

england1

LOOK.

I end up sitting rather than standing, so tired, in the darker end of the space beyond a wall, waiting for the play to begin (are they late to start? It feels like they are late to start), and with a number of other guests, I’m asked to move back to the central, well-lit space, which is where we’ll start, standing for perhaps 25 minutes. I suddenly regret the decision to bring a tote that I must hold with both hands, rather than a little Miss London clutch. My wrap, in case it’s cold, for the record, does not fit into the clutch, so…..

Steven Tandy and Barb Lowing, all in black except for Lowing’s statement floral scarf, enter the space with the authority of tour guides or gallery owners. They are the same person. But we don’t know this right away; the realisation drops in later as we process the strategically shared narrative. It’s a lovely surprise, quite unexpected, because who else but our Tom Holloway can write like this, with lines left unsaid and many more overlapping and repeated? LOOK. We have a sense that some theatrical cleverness is at work, but without any pretentiousness or actual theatricality whatsoever, writer (and actor) Tim Crouch simply delivers the story. The actors simply deliver the story. It’s rare that high expectations are met.

They’re more than competent, assured enough to trust and let the text do its work (other actors say they do this, but rarely do they let things be and actually do this), and directed by Matt Seery (his Directing Mentor, La Boite’s Todd MacDonald), which lets us experience, moment to moment, at the core of the work, at its heart, sensitivity, beauty, patience and grace. And then there are the political layers; layer upon layer upon layer…what IS beneath the niqab, anyway? Only the eyes… LOOK.

This is a wake-up call for some, and palliative care for the not-knowing-they’re-already-dead set.

These actors are no less than iconic in our industry, both adored, genuinely respected; their performances in ENGLAND are testament to their ability and sensitivity as performers. These characters – this character, which they share in the first act – is someone gravely ill, waiting to die…waiting to live. Waiting to live, given a new chance to do so, given a new heart… An Islamic heart, which has become available through diabolical means, and accepted with basic, innocent gratitude. 

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

 

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In Act 2 the narrator offers the gift of a valuable work of art to the widow of the man whose heart she/he has within her, and a translator reduces the conversation to its essence. It’s absolutely fascinating to watch Tandy ponder, mentally processing what he must say aloud to make the conversation between the two women possible, plausible, relatable, reasonable. It’s heartbreaking to tumble into Lowing’s abyss of ignorance and misconception and wistfulness and wonderment, and frustration and anger and guilt and pity and……. for some reason, I’m thinking about My Name is Lucy Barton, another extraordinary piece of writing, and then, with fireworks, a display that’s fierce and frightening and shocking, before I can think any more about anything at all, the play is suddenly finished. But nobody moves. Nobody applauds. Nobody can move. And then, finally, after several deep breaths, there is applause. And we can go. And I do, because it’s a slightly earlier night than usual and, we are done. But not. This piece will stay beneath my skin for a bit, like ink. A reminder. Art permeates life. And love. And life.

ENGLAND is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, The Museum of Modern Love, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is ENGLAND have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships. 

This is a provocative piece for galleries…and for humans. It comes boldly, exquisitely from a team of creative hearts to yours.