Briefs: In Glass, These Are The Isolate ~ theatre notes

Monday, March 21, 2011

Briefs: In Glass, These Are The Isolate

Less, so the conventional wisdom goes, is more. Like most truisms it isn't always true, but it's a handy rule of thumb that Narelle Benjamin might have heeded when creating In Glass, a multiply-imaged extravaganza which played last week in the intimate environs of the Beckett Theatre as part of Dance Massive. The work is choreographed for two extraordinary dancers, Paul White (whose classical purity animated Meryl Tankard's Oracle last year) and Kristina Chan: and I can't help thinking that their explosive chemistry might have been enough on its own.

Benjamin has created an erotic duet in which the masculine and feminine flow together in mirror images of movement or separate in tense conflicts of difference (it's notable that the male is most active, the female most passive). The dance emerges from darkness, exploring a liminal space of dream and unconscious desire: White first enters the blacked-out stage with a torch, seeking Chan's prone figure with its dim beam. The choreography explores complex motions of collapse and restoration, of sensual connection and sharp separation, and its focus on individual parts of the body - arms, hands, legs, or at one point White's Apollonian torso - suggests the fragmenting nature of eroticism itself.

White and Chan are riveting: their precision and fluidity is astounding and moving. But the experience is overlaid by a storm of visual stimuli: the dancers are surrounded not only by reflections in the mirrors that are the main feature of the design, but also by projections and even backlit movement from behind the mirrors. Shadows, endlessly multiplying bodies, shifts of perspective and videoed images collide in a visual excess that begins to have a diminishing impact, and at last distracts from the dance itself.

In Glass seems to explore a Lacanian notion of love or erotic attraction as a form of infantile narcissism, parsed through a sub-Jungian exploration of myth, notably Eve and Narcissus. This is reinforced by the videos, which are surprisingly banal - a girl in an orchard eating an apple, broken glass, a tree of knowledge made of limbs, rippling water. There are undeniably striking moments - White holding two oval mirrors, kissing his grotesque reflections - but these, and whatever ideas were driving them, become blurred in the image overload.

Around 15 minutes before the dance finished - a moment where we revisited the Edenic apple orchard - the dance seemed quite suddenly to run out of ideas, which made the final sequences feel very long. This might be a problem with dramatic shaping rather than the choreography itself. Still, I can't help wondering what the dance might have been like without all the extras. It reminded me a little of some theatre in the 1990s, when multi-media was a novelty in itself, rather than another theatrical language.

On Thursday night I eschewed Dance Massive for These Are The Isolate, a show by the young company Mutation Theatre. This was one of two works that Mutation Theatre premiered during last year's Fringe: I saw their other piece, an adaptation of Shaun Tan's The Arrival at Docklands that demonstrated their energy and potential, but missed this one. And this was the show that garnered the praise and prizes, including the Theatre Works award which led to this production.

These Are The Isolate, written by Katy Warner (who also performs) is a text that, rather like Falk Richter's explorations of corporate capitalism or Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, tracks the collapse of the individual self in an alienated social world. A man (Tim Wotherspoon) is seeking a promotion, which is denied because he is married. Or because he isn't married. But is he married? Is there a child? Has his wife left him, or is she dead, or is she present? All the possibilities are presented as undecided until this short duet for voices reaches its climax, whereupon we witness a singular reality that collapses all the fantasies that have animated the play.

The writing is seriously promising, witty, concrete and detailed, but it doesn't quite match its ambitions. I regretted the urge towards significant narrative that undermines the suspension of its best moments. It might have been a far stronger play, and have headed in less expected directions, if Warner could have stuck to the banality of the crisis it was exploring and resisted the temptation of dramatic flourishes. But there's no doubting the promise it reveals, especially in the bold poetic of its theatrical attack.

Marcel Dorney's production effectively exploits the cavernous darkness of Theatre Works to evoke a shifting inner world, with Katie Sfetkidis's stern lighting picking out or concealing the performers in an abstract theatrical reality. Mutation Theatre has been marked as one to watch for the past year or so, and rightly so. Well worth checking out.

Picture: Kristina Chan and Paul White in In Glass.

In Glass, choreographed by Narelle Banjamin. Composed by Huey Benjamin, visual design Samuel James, costumes design by Tess Scofield, lighting design by Karen Norris. With Kristina Chan and Paul White. Dance Massive, Malthouse Theatre. Closed.

These Are The Isolate, by Katy Warner, directed by Marcel Dorney. Lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Tim Wotherspoon. Devised and performed by Katy Warner and Tim Wotherspoon. Theatre Works, until March 27.


Anonymous said...

"These are the Isolate" for the Title not "we..."

Alison Croggon said...

Dammit. You've idea how many times I reread that before I posted it. And I missed the elephant in front of my nose! I knew I needed that break! Many apologies, & I will rectify as soon as I'm back at my desk.