We Built This City / It's a Mother! ~ theatre notes

Monday, May 01, 2006

We Built This City / It's a Mother!

We Built This City, written and directed by Donna Jackson. Composer and band leader Mark Seymour, percussion director Mark Grunden, media artist Malcolm MacKinnon, lighting Phil Lethlean. Melbourne Workers Theatre @ Scienceworks, Spotswood, May 3-6.

The West Gate Bridge provides the only view in Melbourne that's not from the top of a tall building. And what a view - nothing beats driving over it at night and seeing the industrial sprawl of Yarraville stretching out westward like a sci-fi city, with the flame of the Altona oil refinery blazing ominously in the distance.

So the Melbourne Workers Theatre's decision to site We Built This City, a celebration of Melbourne's construction workers, at Scienceworks, just beneath the bridge's spectacular curve, gives it huge visual grunt. But there is another other, grimmer significance: the West Gate is the site of Australia's worst industrial accident, when the half-completed bridge collapsed in 1970, killing 35 workers.

The show is part of a program of events curated by the Melbourne Workers Theatre to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Eight-Hour Day. Interestingly, the campaign was started by stonemasons working on the quadrangle of Melbourne University in 1856, who downed tools and marched on Parliament House to demand this cornerstone of worker's justice (eight hours' work, eight hours' play, eight hours' sleep), sparking a proud tradition of Australian unionism.

There are several notable things about this show, but maybe the most important is that it's a collaboration between the artists and the workers they are celebrating. The performers are mostly artisans from Melbourne's building industry (including, I was heartened to see, a woman stonemason).

The audience is initially gathered in a small amphitheatre and told the rules (follow the man with the flag and stay behind the barriers) and treated to a bit of song and vaudeville courtesy of the Trade Union Choir and the performing workers. Then we are led outside and given the show, which is basically a series of installations/performances.

Scienceworks is a science and technology museum partly housed in the former Spotswood Pumping Station, a remarkable piece of Victorian industrial architecture in its own right. And this ambitious work of promenade theatre, conceived and directed by Donna Jackson, imaginatively exploits its spatial possibilities. It's beautifully designed, with industry-related abtracts (plans, patterns) projected on walls, and all through gorgeously lit by Phil Lethlean, who must be one of the foremost sculptors of light in this country.

It includes displays with multi-media - a series of interviews with workers talking about their jobs, or reflecting on the use of nicknames between workers, or remembering the fall of the West Gate. And there is also a fabulous gig in the Pumphouse, where former Hunter and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour belts out some classic blue-collar rock with a huge band and backing vocals that include the choir. Seymour here is an indigenous version of Bruce Springsteen (to whom the narrative songs owe a considerable debt). The old steam pump, beautifully lit, pumps away in the background. Each song is punctuated by short monologues again meditating on the history of the trade union movement in various ways - memories of the BLF Green Bans of the '70s, or of friends dying in work-related accidents.

The indisputable climax of the show is a kind of bulldozer ballet, accompanied by two throbbing electric guitars, which features a bulldozer lifted by a giant crane into the night sky: a bizarrely beautiful surreal image that I won't forget for a while. The final scene was a parable of the current IR laws being resisted by workers, to the accompaniment of impressive industrial percussion. Again, this was spectacular, but the storyline went over my head - to me it was as mystifying as mime.

It's agitprop, sure, but of the most exciting kind. Anyone whose heart quickens at the sound of heavy machinery should race to Scienceworks this week and catch the show - there won't be another display like it for a while. It's hard not to watch it without a sense of nostalgia, in this era of punitive IR laws that have all but dismantled the gains the Trade Union movement made over more than a century of activism. Whether this show is a symptom of a new radicalism remains to be seen, but it would be nice to think so.

Melbourne Workers Theatre

It's a Mother! Directed and designed by Don Mamouney, various writers. Video design Assad Abdi, lighting Inka Straface. With Alex Blias, Elena Carapetis and Natalie Alexopoulos. Sidetrack Performance Group @ North Melbourne Town Hall until May 7

It's a Mother! is in the tradition of the ethnic comedy pioneered by Wogs Out Of Work in the 1980s, in which young Greeks, Italians and Spaniards embraced the negative racist stereotypes and fed them back aggressively to their own (and a hugely appreciative audience of Anglo-Saxons as well) as an empowering statement of identity. In this case, director Don Mamouney has cobbled together a number of scripts that explore the cliche of the Greek man's obsession with his mother (and his mother's obsession with him).

The mother of this show believes unconditionally that the way to a man's heart is through his stomach. She is a terrifying tyrant at the heart of the family, forgiving her co-dependent son all his sins, adept at manipulating men by any means possible - emotional blackmail, gourmet temptations - to ensure her own power.

Like all cliches, it's not as if there's not an element of truth in these various sketches, but at times the show can veer uncomfortably close to misogyny. I don't think it quite gets there, but in playing off the gender stereotypes there is a clear danger of simply confirming them. The problem lies centrally in the dramaturgy: there are too many writers, and despite Mamouney's efforts to make a single show from all these vastly different voices and takes on the theme, they merely end up negating each other.

The writing is patchy, varying from broad comedy to a couple of stabs at something more poignant. The most successful scenes, by Evdokia Katahanas and Bill Kokkaris, play off the comedy of recognition - the old Greek couple next to me were vastly entertained, especially by the bits in Greek that I couldn't understand. But not even Assad Abdi's lush multimedia projections or the energetic and precisely observed performances from the three actors can make up for the show's basic lack of focus.

1 comment:

John Branch said...

Re. one of your remarks on "We Built This City": I can hear a rewritten Rolling Stones song going "I know / It's only agitprop / But I like it." Glad you didn't just apply the label and stop there--this kind of thing has its place.

A few years ago, I saw a one-woman show about the workers who are constructing a huge water-supply tunnel for the city of New York. It used graphic projections and of course costume and lighting to give the audience a feel for where these people work, but I'd love to witness something in a genuinely industrial location such as you described. A bulldozer ballet--one doesn't get many chances to see that...