La Verità

First published by Daily Review, 10 January 2016

Acrobats climb and fly in physics-defying movements through double helix ladders suspended from the sky. Dancers on crutches vault and sail over the stage without their bodies touching the floor. A rhinoceros plays piano while his twin tries to capture floating tissue sheets of music.

Inspired by the surrealist worlds of Salvador Dali, the Sydney Festival show La Verità takes you into a dream space that is, in turns, funny, sexy, nightmarish – and sometimes simply just gloriously baffling. That great father of the surrealists, Dr Freud, would no doubt approve.

Created by the Swiss-based company Compagnia Finzi Pasca, the show is built around a backdrop Dali painted for a ballet Tristan Fou (“Mad Tristan”), performed in 1944 by New York’s Metropolitan Opera. When Dali’s work was recently found packed away in an old box, director Daniele Finzi Pasca saw an opportunity to resurrect it for the otherworldly space of the theatre; a chance to celebrate the superhuman bodies of contortionists, acrobats and performers who slip in and out of characters like magicians. Beings who live in an alternate world where the normal rules are bent, turned upside down and inside out.

While there is beauty and awe aplenty, the show is also a reminder of how the dream language of surrealism has bled into the everyday world wherever you care to look: from the visual language of Dr Seuss, to drag and mardi gras floats, to the language of advertising, where surreal images are now part of the vernacular. Although the surrealist movement began with revolutionary ideals – and connections to communist parties in Europe – Dali himself was notorious in his pursuit of wealth. He worked with advertisers and, along with Warhol, he appeared in commercials for Braniff International Airways. Perhaps this explains the running joke throughout the show about money and poor struggling creatives, and the auctioning off of his painting to fund a retirement home for “decrepit old artists.”

These spoken word moments take us out of the dream and provide some interpretation. But sometimes you just want to be left to dream. Particularly for highlights such as the one that comes midway through the show, just before the spell-interrupting interval. A procession of regal figures bearing giant dandelions and acrobatic sprites leap and parade as a shower of what looks like champagne corks rain down – as if the partying gods above are holding their annual bacchanalian get together.

La Verità might not be the revolutionary art the first surrealists dreamed of, but it asks us to remember that the creatures and the things that exist in the world always hold the possibility of being arranged in ways that looks completely different to the one we know now.

The Events

First published by Daily Review, 14 January 2016

The Granville Town Hall is an intimate setting for The Events. The lived-in ordinariness of the space, the cups of tea and an urn out the front, are a good stand in for the play’s main setting: a church hall where a choir has assembled for rehearsals. “Join the big crazy tribe”, urges the lesbian church minister Claire (Catherine McClements). It’s the kind of banal place where a mass murder – the play’s subject matter – is never expected to occur, but one day just might.

The production notes say the show, by Scottish playwright David Greig, began as “an investigation” of the mass killing in Norway by Anders Breivik of 69 people on the island of Utoyo. The details of the shooting are left vague though, and this Sydney Festival version is sprinkled with some Australian references and locations. The Boy of the play could be any killer: Anders, or Martin Bryant, or one of any growing number of disaffected outsiders who’ve exploded one day in a deadly rage (and there’s a real, if unstated, poignancy to the fact that in the neighbouring suburb of Parramatta, just a few months ago, 15-year-old Farhad Khalil Mohammad Jabar shot and killed police force employee Curtis Cheng).

McClements does a finely tuned job of conveying a woman whose deep need for resolution drives her to madness, rage, and moments of mania and fantastical delusion. Her acting partner, Johnny Carr, has a strong stage presence; but he plays each of the many characters he portrays – ‘the boy’, ‘the father’, the ‘school friend’, ‘the psychiatrist’ etc – in such a similar, fairly flat, register it can be hard to distinguish where some characters start and end. Perhaps that’s deliberate, as Claire’s obsession with “the Boy” inflects her view of everyone she interacts with.

In one scene the choir (a nightly-changing cast drawn from local community choirs wherever the play is performed) become the audience of what seems to be a perverse reality television show. They take turns asking Carr, playing a “tribal warrior” (the murderer?) questions: from his favourite song, to what he likes to eat. It seems to be a comment on both the banality of the media’s attempt to make sense of the inexplicable, to find reasons for that which is beyond reason, as well as a comment on the way we can make celebrities and cult figures of people with deadly intentions.

The play, as my theatre date noted, could be a “little confusing at times”. But perhaps that is the point: “The sheer horror, the scale, where it came from. It bewilders me,” Claire says. Such tragedies can never be fully explained. And so, sometimes there’s nothing left to do but sing. And Clair’s community chorus – the “one big crazy tribe” – lifted the show out of relentless darkness, finding a beautiful harmony we so desperately need.

Tomorrow’s Parties

First published on Daily Review, 21 January 2016

Will the future be so full of people everyone will be squashed together, shoulders jammed up against each other as if they are on one long peak hour train ride? Or will there be just five lonely people left on earth, each with an entire continent to themselves? Will the future be a world of “push button democracy”, or a return to feudal times, where everyone is allocated two weeks each year to live as an aristocrat, spending the balance living as a peasant? The Sydney Festival About an Hour show Tomorrow’s Parties doesn’t leave too many future scenarios unexplored.

The staging is simple: a man and a woman back-lit by naked coloured globes. It’s as if they are in the dying hours of some low key celebration marking the passing of another year. They don’t move from their spot as they engage in an inventive and playful back and forth dialogue about the way the world will look at some unspecified future date.

Who are these two? They are a curious and beguiling mix of nerdily creative, unhinged professors and childlike simpletons. Is this an elaborate first date flirtatious tease? Or are they reciting verbatim the reveries of stoned undergraduates (and that’s not a swipe: some of the most mind expanding conversations can occur between stoned undergraduates). Or, are they low level marketing assistants at a firm of futurists? It’s a fun guessing game to play as you watch this pair: the woman (Cathy Naden), initially seems to be a low energy performer, but she proves to be a captivating story teller and conjurer of alternate worlds. The man (Jerry Killick) gives his character a playful, wicked edge, the kind of fun guest you want at every party.

Exploring the future is an interesting experiment for theatre – unlike, say, books and movies, where science fiction is an established genre, theatre is an art form usually more occupied with the present (or the very recent past). Maybe that’s why some of the most moving moments occur when the pair ponder that the future will be much like the present: there will still be big arguments over map reading and Christmas arrangements, people will have affairs and fall in love with exactly the wrong person at the wrong time. There will be corruption, sadism, child abuse. People will still write bad poetry. What will the future think of us? It’s a question posed late in the play, and one that’s about as interesting as the question of what the world will look like, “in the future”.

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