Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please...
The Tempest, Shakespeare
It begins, as all imagination does, in darkness and silence. A door opens at the back of the stage, and we hear footsteps; a single wavering torchlight lights a patch of colour here, an object there. In the middle of the space is a giant pile of clothes, maybe three metres high, thrown together hurriedly for some emergency, perhaps... Then other people stumble in, and begin to explore the space. They're clearly refugees of some kind, their faces black with smuts of ash. Someone finds a television, fiddles with the controls, turns it on, and as snatches of television news begins to buzz through the static, the frame begins to focus.
It's Black Saturday. The actors are people fleeing from the firestorms, waiting in a place of refuge for news, supplies, help. One actor finds a guitar and begins to strum some chords. Another, a young woman, listens to a news story about missing fire fighters, and breaks down. Someone she loves is missing... Meanwhile, an old man (Max Cullen) finds a book, and begins to read it out loud. It's the beginning of Twelfth Night. Someone else picks up another line... and gradually, out of the imagined reality of the bushfires, spirals another reality altogether: Shakespeare's comic fantasy, a gossamer nonsense of which the entire purpose is delight.
The young grief-stricken woman (Andrea Demetriades) becomes Viola, mourning her brother Sebastian, lost in a storm at sea. The other nameless refugees transform into characters from Twelfth Night - Kit Brookman becomes Olivia, the Duke Orsino (Elan Zavelsky, brilliantly doubling as Sir Andrew Aguecheek), Feste the clown (Max Cullen), Olivia (Kit Brookman), and the bluff Ben Wood as an unlikely but compelling Malvolio.
The real gift of Lee Lewis's Twelfth Night, which I recommend whole-heartedly, is the immediacy with which it demonstrates that theatre is an act of complicity between those who make and watch it. Half this production's charm and a great part of its hilarity emerges from its ad hoc theatrical wit: the actors use low-tech props made of cardboard or rags gleaned from op shops, inviting the audience to participate in their transparent manipulations. The laughter bubbles up through the cracks in the credible: the knowing adult and the open-mouthed child sit hand in hand, laughing at the stratagems, and at the same time entirely seduced by them.
The aim of this ingenious foolery is, as Prospero says, to please: but when it's as well done as it is here, the pleasure has an edge of profound poignancy. It's a quality that strikes me as especially actorly, and maybe most of all, in its doubled vision and fragile, ephemeral conceits, especially Shakespearean. Lewis's astounding cast of clowns - there are no weak links in this show - perform the set pieces sublimely. The deception of Malvolio, with his tormentors hiding in plain sight in absurd costumes made of cardboard boxes, is a highlight, and outrageously funny in how it pushes its own conventions to the point just before they break altogether.
The vulgar comedy, and its cruelty (the malice brought to bear against Malvolvio is cruel indeed) plays against some of Shakespeare's most beautiful musings on romantic love outside the sonnets. The poetry is, perhaps, underplayed; certainly, the romances between the various smitten lovers seem little more than occasions for gorgeous wordplay, rather than true feeling. But when Viola and Sebastian reunite, each having believed that the other was dead, it breaks your heart: here, the brother and sister make the true love story. And this brings the tale back to its first reality, the disaster of the bushfires, and the partings that haunted so many families. Beautifully done, and a must-see.
Mix Tape, part of Chunky Move's Next Move series, is Stephanie Lake's first full-length dance work. It's a very simple idea - Mix Tape uses fragments of recorded interviews and a straightforward mix tape sound track to explore the idea of romantic love: situating itself, as Lake frankly admits in the program, right in the middle of the cliche. The work has a deliberately domestic setting, with a bookshelf-cum-entertainment centre dominating the back of the stage, on which are various noise-making machines: a reel-to-reel tape, a turntable, a cd player. Each machine turns itself on and off as the soundtrack requires, and the work modulates between differing registers of feeling, from the comic to the sad to the desolate.
The four dancers - Sara Black, Rennie McDougall, Timothy Ohl and Jorijn Vriesendorp - perform with a coruscating energy that lights up Lake's intense choreography with an exuberance that only comes with youth. The movement oscillates between a kind of zombie-mode, where the dancers seem almost asleep or dazed, before an awakening into something wrenchingly violent, in which movement seems to ripple through the dancers's flesh and explode in a flash of kinetic energy from their arms and legs.
The erotic metaphor of a duet is foregrounded to the point where it becomes literal: dancers kiss, as if they are making love in front of us. And about half way through, I began to wonder why the duets were so rigorously heterosexual; the bodies are locked in their genders, locked in their sexes, locked in their roles, in ways that suggest romantic love is, as the ALP would have it of marriage, a matter between a man and a woman. It wouldn't have occurred to me if I had thought these were particular couples, but here they were representative, speaking generally about romantic love. Then I wondered if this question was part of the zombie-movement that plays darkly through the dance, whether, in fact, the heterosexism functioned as self-aware critique or frank oversight. I still can't decide.
In the same way, a couple of the more narrative songs - Bob Dylan's Shelter from the Storm, for instance - dominated the performance so strongly that I found myself above all listening to the lyrics. At these and other times, the dance seemed reduced to mere illustration, a literal representation or playing out of gesture, rather than a dynamic language in itself. Again, I couldn't tell if this was deliberate or not: if it is, it doesn't strike me as an especially fruitful tension. The peril of this whole conceit is of falling into the merely sentimental, the mere cliche, and I'm not sure that Lake wholly escapes it. These reservations aside, all of which are to do with the framing rather than the choreography, Mix Tape is absorbing and often very beautiful: and the dancing is sensational.
Photo: Max Cullen as Feste taunts Malvolio (in the box) in Bell Shakespeare's Twelfth Night
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare, directed by Lee Lewis. Designed by Anna Tregloan, lighting design by Luiz Pampolha, music and sound by Paul Charlier and Steve Toulmin. With Max Cullen, Ben Wood, Andrea Demetriades, Kit Brookman, Brent Hill, Elan Zavelsky and Adam Booth. Bell Shakespeare, Victorian Arts Centre, until September 18. Touring regional Australia, Canberra and Sydney until November.
Mix Tape, directed and choreographed by Stephanie Lake. Lighting design by Benjamin Cisterne (Bluebottle), sound design, Luke Smiles, costume design by Harriet Oxley. With Sara Black, Rennie McDougall, Timothy Ohl and Jorijn Vriesendorp. Next Move, Chunky Move Studios, until September 11.