Time For the Main Course

“Nine new Australian works is more than you will ever see in one season of main-stage theatre,” Jean Tong rightly announced before the start of Tastings, a series of new Australian plays hosted by the UMSU Creative Arts Office. Coinciding with the 2017 season launches of major theatre companies around the nation (again highlighting the consistent lack of Australian work on the main stage) Tastings 2016 stands as a deliciously nourishing entrée to a future feast of Australian theatre.

With each night of performance showcasing six of the nine works on offer, the Saturday evening opened with “Camera Obscura”, written by and starring Claire Miller and James Macaronas. This darkly humorous two-hander set in an Orwellian dystopia deals with two government dissidents as they attempt to absolve their crimes and be freed from the “System”. Forced to create homemade propaganda to appease the “System” the Beckettian duo grapple with questions of political rebellion, history and their own mortality. Sparsely staged, the piece was executed with urgency and charm by Miller and Macaronas whose chemistry propelled the drama to its inevitable tragicomic ending. I was particularly captivated by the stark physical contrast created by Macaronas’ looming figure offset against Miller’s smaller stature.

Cristina Wells followed with her solo performance “Marriage or Mushrooms”. We meet an aristocratic woman as she rehearses a fake outpouring of grief for her murdered husband, whom, coincidently, she has killed. This witty femme fatale schools the audience on what the aristocratic man was really like and how her family has forced her in to female servitude. Meanwhile, she casually prepares to commit suicide, choosing to hang herself rather than be forced to remarry – and poison yet another husband. Wells’ performs with all the charisma and nonchalance the character demands, but the great nuance of her portrayal is in the character’s vulnerable side; a side pressed into submission and self-judgment by her vapid social milieu. Her final act of feminist defiance left the audience cheering for her triumph.

The first act closed with the pulsating, densely packed “A Dog Called Monkey” by Freya McGrath and Laura Collins. Set around a clothes strewn bed at a house party, the audience is dragged into the nightmare of a young woman (Irina Hochwald-Jones) struggling to come to terms with her rape. She is thrown between her nightmare friends as they tell nonsensical anecdotes and dance hypnotically to The Cat Empire’s “The Wine Song” (a very unsettling use of this song). What was powerful here was how the piece used these dreamlike devices to convey a visceral sense of a chaotic, drugged up party. Combined with lighting and choreography you had a real sense of intoxication and of the loss of mental and physical control. Crucially, Collins and McGrath position their subject, the victim of sexual assault, at the centre of the piece, something that many playwrights have been unable or unwilling to do. Additionally, what made the piece truly disturbing was not an overt, elevated examination of sexual assault, but the subtle and discreet transgressions that facilitate and silence it: Declan Mulcahy’s predatory leg grabbing, the protagonist’s refusal to actually identify the event as rape. These moments created deeply disturbing but nuanced look at sex crimes.

The second act began with Sara Laurena’s improvised physical movement piece “Stillness in Motion”. Figures masked in red ribbon spring to life within a square of LED light with the audience positioned all around the space. Performers push and test the limits of a repertoire of concise, angular movements. Eventually these limits are completely broken, à la Pina Bausch, as they venture beyond the confines of the lighted square. There was a fantastic moment when the performers decided to finish in the seating bank with the audience still surrounding the square, unsure whether the performance was finished or who was watching who. The performers must be commended for their commitment and attention to this athletic and physical piece. However, due to its highly experimental and abstract nature, which aligns it more closely with performance art, I believe that this work would have been better served by a different platform from Tastings and the Guild Theatre; nonetheless, it strongly held its own.

The penultimate piece, Dominic Weintraub’s “The Prologue”, presented four unspecified narrators introducing a performance that is never to arrive. The characters banter, tell love stories with Eminem lyrics and urge the audience to just wait for the real show to start. There was a great sense of anticipation and intrigue with this piece: who are these people? What are they waiting for? Are they all in fact part of the same mind? Just as the piece may have become clear, it shifted again. However, in all its intrigue, the writing lacked a dramatic drive or direction and seemed to meander without payoff. Additionally, the lack of clarity in the characters and action sometimes became frustrating. Despite being clearly a still developing piece and also a staged reading, the performers carried the work confidently and humorously. I believe this piece has great potential in its language and characters and I look forward to seeing it grow.

The evening concluded with Lily Steiner-Jones’ “Retiree at Twenty-three”, a dramatic poem about a man who wins a game show and becomes a flamboyant, self-aggrandising millionaire. Supported by an ensemble of khaki clad devotees, the retiree recounts the follies from his life as a millionaire as well as his eventual boredom and dissatisfaction with his enormous wealth. This skillfully crafted Dr. Seuss-like verse poem was carried strongly by Guillaume Doussin, who invoked all the self-absorption, misogyny and eccentricity of every crazy millionaire you have seen on the news: Trump, Robert Durst, anyone from Goldman-Sachs. The quality of the writing and performance here were outstanding.

Each of these performances demands their own analysis. However, in summary, the works on display at Tastings were moving, yet dramatically concise in a way that is rarely seen in student theatre. None of the works lagged or overstayed their welcome and they always left the audience wanting more. Given the state of arts of funding in this country it’s disappointing that these kinds of works are not receiving the support they deserve. It’s time these tastings were served as the main course in Australia’s great restaurant of theatre; George Brandis will be cooking…

Martin Hoggart

UMSU Creative Arts Office’s Tastings ran from September 8th-10th in the Guild Theatre.

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