Review: Dust ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Review: Dust

Dust, written and directed by Donna Jackson, composed and performed by Mark Seymour. Music directed by Tracy Bourne, media and film by Malcolm McKinnon. With the Victorian Trade Union Choir, Willin Wimmin and the Ballarat Arts Academy Ensemble. Hubcap Productions with the Asbestos Diseases Society and the University of Ballarat. Williamstown Town Hall, closed.

The phrase “community theatre” is liable to conjure images of earnest amateur thespians giving demonstrations in coarse acting. But this is hugely misleading.

Community-based companies are responsible for some of our most vital political theatre. In the hands of companies like Devonport-based Big hArt - who created Ngapartji Ngapartji, a work which looked at the impact of the Maralinga nuclear tests in the Pitjantjara people - it becomes a powerful conduit for the concerns of specific communities.

This is work that’s neither earnest nor brutally polemic, but rather a reminder that theatre is the most human of artforms.

In Melbourne, Donna Jackson, founder of Footscray’s Women’s Circus, has been making exemplary community theatre for years. Recently she’s been working with trade unions. Her spectacular show We Built This City was a site-specific work created with with former Hunters and Collectors frontman Mark Seymour, and featured, among other things, a surreal ballet of bulldozers.

Dust – an exploration of the grim history of the Australian asbestos industry – is their latest collaboration. Again a site-specific work, it was made originally for the Mechanic’s Institute in Ballarat and remounted in the beautiful Victorian space of Williamstown Town Hall, in Melbourne’s west.

It demonstrates Jackson’s talent for accessing the energies of diverse community groups. The show is backed by the Asbestos Diseases Society and its 60-voice choir includes singers from the Vctorian Trades Union Choir, local Williamstown songsters Willin Wimmin and the Ballarat Arts Academy Ensemble.

Dust is in two halves. In the first, the audience saunters around the huge space of the town hall visiting acts – three-minute plays, a magician, visual installations - in booths on either side, set up as in a fair. This is punctuated by a couple of songs from the main stage.

After interval it becomes a more conventional musical, in which stories glimpsed in the booths are expanded through song. Jackson again exploits multi-media to generate an operatic mode that embraces satire - it includes a marvellous parody of the ideal of the 1960s nuclear family so beloved of advertisers - and moments of sheer grandeur, as in the song Antarctica, based on the the diary entries and photographs of an Antarctic scientist who died of asbestos-related disease.

The politics is dealt with lightly but effectively – James Hardie is represented, for instance, by a corporate woman (Laura Lattuada), who is having problems with her shonky hairdresser before an important address to shareholders - taken, I am certain, from real documents - in which she speaks of a "difficult year", assures shareholders their money is safe and requests a salary raise for directors.

What binds the show together is Jackson’s sharp theatrical eye and the driving guitar of Mark Seymour. Seymour’s songs have the rock’n’roll power and lyricism of Bruce Springsteen, especially the Springsteen of The Ballad of Tom Joad. But he is good enough to transcend the comparison, giving this genre of social anger an antipodean twist. His songs pack a huge emotional punch, especially when they are amplified by 60 voices.

Without a trace of earnestness, but plenty of anger and grief, Dust relates the corporate scandal and individual tragedy of the history of asbestos manufacturing. It’s straight-up, moving and enormously entertaining. Community theatre at its very best.

This review was published in yesterday's Australian.


Chris Boyd said...

I think you'll find Big hArt is based in Tassie, Alison. In Burnie or Devonport.

Alison Croggon said...

Ah yes. Thanks, Mr Boyd. The Ngapartji Ngapartji project is based in Alice Springs, hence the confusion.