Review: Briwyant, The McNeil Project ~ theatre notes

Monday, July 09, 2012

Review: Briwyant, The McNeil Project


On the evidence of Briwyant, Vicki Van Hout is rightly celebrated as one of our up-and-coming choreographers. There are moments of brilliance in this performance, which takes a Dreamtime legend and retells it as a wrong skin romance of contemporary Indigenous Australia. Van Hout's physical wit and precision are given sharp elucidation by an extraordinary company of dancers and the best sequences show a promising theatrical imagination at work.

(L-R) Raghav Handa, Henrietta Baird and Rosealee Pearson in Briwyant. Photo: Jeff Busby

Yet Briwyant is a mess, mainly due to a series of baffling design decisions. The uncredited set, which incorporates three video screens, makes it look like a refugee from the 1990s. The videos themselves add little to the show's meaning, and largely distract from the dancers. Forestage is occupied by a floor sculpture, a kind of landscape constructed of playing cards, which means in practice that for the most part the dancers are confined back stage. This limits the geometry of the choregraphy, placing most of the action at a distance, and crucially diffuses the energy of the performers and their relationship with the audience. This is exaggerated by murky lighting which means that sometimes the dance is difficult to see. The sound design is equally murky: despite some interesting compositions from Elias Constantopedos, it switches uncomfortably from amplified recorded sound to acoustic voices.

It took me a while to recover from the ill-advised opening scene that introduces the Dreamtime story, a spoken word poem weirdly rich in 19th century diction and 21st century doggerel that is theatricalised with painful obviousness. Again there's no credit for this, the only substantial text in the show, and I couldn't but wish the job had been given to one of the many fine Indigenous poets around: maybe someone with the clean, tough lyricism of Ali Cobby Eckermann. What this show lacks is focus: the dance itself is often superb, but you have to squint through the detritus to see it.

The McNeil Project

Jim McNeil is Australian theatre's version of a criminal literary celebrity. He was serving a 17-year sentence in the 1970s for armed robbery and shooting a police officer when he wrote The Chocolate Frog and That Old Familiar Juice. Both these short plays, remounted at fortyfive downstairs, are examinations of the morality of prison life. They are naturalistic dramas set in a cell with three prisoners, and both take the premise of an innocent newcomer being introduced to prison mores. The first excavates the hatred for the informer (the "chocolate frog") and the second is about the rape of a younger prisoner by one of the older men.

Richard Bligh, Cain Thompson and Luke McKenzie in That Old Familiar Juice.

McNeil's concern was to demonstrate that life inside a prison, with its brutally enforced hierarchies and hypocrisies, is a reflection of life outside it, rather than an aberration. The dialogue is tough and intelligent, and it's here given a plain and unadorned reading by director Malcolm Robertson and his cast. The standout is Richard Bligh, playing an old alcoholic prisoner in That Old Familiar Juice. Although well executed, the performances lack a necessary sense of real physical danger. The whole production has a whiff of the museum about it: McNeil's diction is very much of his time, and little in the production gives the plays the urgency of now. Worth checking out all the same for an interesting slice of Australian theatre history.

Why the capsule reviews? Reasons here.

Briwyant, directed and choreographed by Vicki Van Hout, in collaboration with the performers. Videography by Marian Abboud, lighting design by Neil Simpson, composition by Elias Costantopedos. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse Theatre until July 14.

The McNeil Project: The Chocolate Frog and The Old Familiar Juice, by Jim McNeil, directed by Malcolm Robertson. Lighting by Katie Sfetkidis. With Will Ewing, Luke McKenzie, Cain Tjompson and Richard Bligh. Fortfive Downstairs until July 29.


Chris Boyd said...

I especially enjoyed the use of Aussie slang in The Old Familiar Juice. Not just McNeil's clever use of it, but the clear delivery of it. (It's slighly hyperbolic, maybe, but the director and cast made our slang as comprehensible as the RSC and Old Vic, say, make Shakespeare!)

Take the use of the word dingo. That word has been used to mean coward since the middle decades of the 19th century when there was a clear distinction between the proud, noble and wild 'warrigal' and the dingo which was, by definition, domesticated. (The language that distinction comes from -- Dharug?? -- is extinct.)

McNeil uses the word to refer to someone who didn't fight in a war. Suddenly dingo is "didn't go". (Meaning clear, even if the etymology stays lost.) I loved that.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Chris - yes, it's all quite clear. McNeil isn't doing the larrikin thing with his language: it's vivid and (properly) colourful idiom. I didn't know that about the use of "dingo", btw: trust you to.