Kate Rendell reviews Darwin Festival
Kate Rendell took a closer look at some Darwin Festival shows for the new Front Row critique program, spearheaded by the Festival. Here are her reviews.
Electric Fields – an exquisite performance by masterful musicians, who give so much of themselves. Hands down my Festival highlight – captivating, moving and joyous!
Tracks Dance ‘In Your Blood’ – surprisingly funny, beautifully realised and celebratory contemporary dance that gave me all the feels. Superb choreography, staging and lighting with a phenomenal live soundtrack – this is a production that should make Darwin very proud.
An unexpected gem that worked its way under my skin –
Cock Fight is a masterful piece of physical theatre that uses the language of the body to deliver a searing critique of the masculine ego and the emptiness of our workplaces – it just took me a little while to let myself in!
The setting for Cock Fight is so eerily familiar that it could be any cheap office fit out in any city, especially Darwin. The windows to the outside world are obscured by those aluminum venetian blinds – you know, the flimsy ones that make a nasty rattle. Complete with aircon vent, potted plant, telephone, white board, fluorescent lights blinking on and off and the heavy set filing cabinet, this is everywhere and nowhere.
The work begins as two white male bodies (long-time collaborators Joshua Thomson and Gavin Webber) are revealed in the space. Framed by flashes of light they appear as stills caught in various interlocking poses. Their stances are absurd, extreme and violent. Suddenly aware of the genre of this work and the silence between these actors – I start to wonder if my spontaneous Wednesday night ticket purchase was a terrible mistake.
Physical theatre, a genre I am not particularly familiar with, appeared on this stage as part circus, part dance and part mime. At first the intense physicality was confronting – the slapstick humour was jarring and the thumps of furniture frightfully loud.
Strip back the circus tricks and I find myself witnessing an all too familiar contest of hyper-masculinity: an older man threatened by the presence of a younger man and the younger man vying for attention. The meaningless jibes are so real they’re not funny. These are office men we all know. Indeed given the recent developments in Australian politics this work could just as easily be set in the chambers of parliament.
The performances by Thomson and Webber are phenomenal – perfectly embodying two cocks with their spurs sharpened. So much so that I find myself physically recoiling from the stage, folding my legs up under the chair – I simply didn’t have the stomach for these assholes.
About ten minutes in, however, I am lured back by a gentler rhythm. The delivery of the migrating Arctic bird metaphor is hilarious and the work spirals out from this point as the tone shifts. Exquisite scenes of limbs intertwined with unexpected grace and beauty mesmerise. Time is eclipsed. Minutes could be days could be months. Gesture and facial expression are the cues that draw out a deeper narrative of demise.
The soundscape beautifully mirrors this unraveling of both men. It is an undoing that builds literally to the men dragging one another along the ground by the scruff of their necks.
What surprised me most, after my initial resistance, was how much I came to feel for this work. Which is not to say that these men are redeemed but rather that their pathetic vulnerability is deeply felt. I was genuinely in awe that something so removed of language could communicate so much.
The final scenes are particularly exquisite. Vying for final control, the two men find themselves at the extreme limits of their physicality. Of all the works of the Festival, it is these final scenes of spent bodies that remain most vividly in my mind and will for a long while yet.
Betty Grumble – ‘Love and Anger’
Feminist cabaret, full to the brim with shock and awe, that left me feeling cold –
Ok here goes... my grumble about Betty Grumble...
Of course with an intro like this, I feel I must preface this review with a genuine and humble acknowledgement that I am not often in the audience for cabaret and that my perspective sits outside an appreciation of this genre. As a participant of Front Row we attended shows selected for us – this was a work I had not expected to write about, yet something about my seemingly isolated reaction left me needing to respond.
Having spoken to a number of people about Love and Anger, I realise that this work captivated and delighted many audiences. I was not one of them.
Love and Anger is primarily made up of shock and awe skits using the body – beginning with a dramatic performance of labial lip-syncing and followed by sketches including glad wrap, realistic terracotta poo, smeared paint and Grumble’s mother’s body building bikini, as well as various other objects that were removed from and inserted into her vagina.
There were many aspects of these skits that revealed a clever subversion of strip tease and sexual performance – a kind of grotesque undoing of feminine ideals and expectations. Using her body as both weapon and canvas, Grumble wielded audience attention with remarkable strength and agency. There were some truly captivating moments – most powerful among them was an intense performance of Grumble washing off her makeup in a tub of water. Ultimately, however, these moments of poignancy were overshadowed, for me, by the repetition of pussy play performed against backing tracks – including an intentionally unbearable segment of heavy metal music and strobe lights.
Surprisingly, the opening night crowd was a hard audience to rally. The concrete cube of Happy Yess felt flat and lacked warmth. The speakers were too loud and reverb echoed. Perched on our folded chairs many of the audience strained to see the finer details of the performance.
An old woman behind me, who I was somewhat surprised to see in the audience, sighed and exclaimed: 'Oh I see… she's a stripper'. I flinched at the cruel irony in her statement. This lady was unmoved, certainly not shocked. Every now and then during the show she would turn to her friend next to her and ask: ‘What’s she doing now?’ I wondered if she had seen some things in her time – whether a sex clown in Darwin in 2018 isn’t as shocking as we think.
As someone often looking for narrative or meaning in performance, I personally needed Love and Anger to go further. There were hints of where this might have emerged. I was most engaged when Grumble spoke of her family and the feminist impetus behind the work. I longed to hear more of this. Instead I was left asking what exactly she was saying about her mum’s body-building past? I also wondered about those with bodies whose physicality resist normative expectations of beauty, gender and sex – like her brother she mentions in passing – how would these bodies be received as performers of a show like this?
Betty Grumble is a performer with profound physical skill and a disarming sense of humour who bravely bared all in Love and Anger – yet at the conclusion of this show, as we followed a naked Grumble into the courtyard to sign merchandise, I was left wondering what I’d missed.
The exquisite satisfaction of a production in perfect sync –
Emerging from the dark box of the Studio Theatre out onto the bright streets of Darwin at the conclusion of Prize Fighter I found myself reflecting on the capacity of good theatre to take you somewhere else – the remarkable power of live performance to allow the suspension of disbelief.
In the case of Prize Fighter, my willingness to be taken in came not so much from an identification with the story but via a visceral response to the actors on the stage. Watching actors switch characters amid fast physical scenes, enhanced by tricks of lighting and a superb soundtrack, I was totally absorbed into the pace and intensity of this work.
When we enter Studio Theatre, the show has already begun – surrounded by climbing ropes, old tyres and boxing paraphernalia, a cast of six actors warm up on the floor of the theatre in a scene recognisable from any suburban gym (indeed in the evening performances of the work the opening gym scene included real life athletes from local Darwin gyms). A soundtrack of RnB and hip-hop pumps over the scene. Watching a woman in active wear (Ratidzo Mambo) as she effortlessly completed 20 pushups, I am instantly in awe of the physical prowess of these performers.
Boxing is the setting, the metaphor and the propelling force of Prize Fighter and it guides every aspect of the work. A low square lighting rig gives distinct shape to the stage. Looking down from the extremely raked seating of the Studio Theatre, we are ringside. All action herein occurs within and around this square. Storylines are embedded within the swift moves of boxing bouts and are switched up mid punch. The boxers (Marcus Johnson, Mandela Mathia, Gideon Mzembe, Pacharo Mzembe) are suddenly also fathers, soldiers and sons in Congo.
The work intensifies as the stakes of the boxing bouts are raised and the trauma of the past is revealed. At its core, Prize Fighter is the story of Isa a Congolese boy orphaned by war and forced to become a child soldier before fleeing to become a refugee in Australia. Prize Fighter, in this way, is filmic in scope and resolution – with all the key elements of a blockbuster movie. Congolese-Australian playwright Future D. Fidel himself describes the work as ‘a mythical story.’
It is the kind of script that with another director or theatre company may have become laden with sentimentality and cliché. Yet using the pace of a boxing match, the production by La Boite Theatre Company does not fall into these traps. Indeed through sharp contrast, the total incommensurability of an Australian boxing gym and the war in Congo is beautifully realised.
This is the exquisite satisfaction of witnessing all aspects of a production work together.
The work ends with an impressive technical touch of falling black sand – evoking spirit, absence and loss. I later learn the sand used is ‘coltan’ a metallic ore mined in war ravaged Congo and a main driving force behind the conflict. It is a significant inclusion in the production, as coltan is a key component in every electronic device we own, most commonly within the mobile phone. Learning of the link, I wondered if the sand is perhaps a missed opportunity in the production – an indictment of our individual implication in war that is not realised by the audience. But then such political meanings are perhaps most powerful as suggestions rather than heavy-handed signposts.
Brilliantly produced with every element of the production working in sync with the performers – Prize Fighter is contemporary theatre at its best.
Kate Rendell works as a Communications Manager in the arts. She is also a freelance writer and researcher. Currently living in Larrakia Country, Kate is enjoying being attuned to the unique stories of the Top End.
Front Row is a skills development program for Northern Territory artists facilitated by Darwin Festival and Browns Mart Theatre. The program is for early and mid-career artists, arts workers and writers to develop their creative and professional skills. Selected participants attended performances at Darwin Festival 2018, contributed to critical conversations and took part in workshops with festival artists. As part of the program participants wrote a critical response or review of one of the performances they saw.
Header: Elise Derwin for Darwin Festival