Review: Holiday/Chapters from the Pandemic ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Review: Holiday/Chapters from the Pandemic

Holiday by Raimondo Cortese, directed by Adriano Cortese. Design by Anna Tregloan, sound design by David Franzke, lighting design by Niklas Pajanti. With Paul Lum and Patrick Moffat. Ranters Theatre @ Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall. Bookings: 9639 0096

Chapters from the Pandemic, written, directed and performed by Angus Cerini. Design by Marg Howell, music composition and sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting by Rachel Burke, video design by Michael Carmody. Doubletap @ fortyfivedownstairs. Bookings: 9662 9966

These two shows demonstrate the depth, range and quality of independent theatre bubbling beneath the skin of Melbourne. They represent a startling contrast in style: Chapters from the Pandemic is a full-on expressionist dance theatre work, devised and performed by the human tempest Angus Cerini, while Holiday is exquisite minimalist theatre that focuses on the apparently inconsequential minutae of human communication.

All the same, they do have some common ground. For one thing, they are part of a significant shift in the magnetic field of Australian culture. Over the past decade, many of the most interesting theatre-makers have been aligning themselves with Europe and Asia, rather than with the traditionally Anglocentric centres of London or New York.

Many significant artists in the Australian performing arts – Barrie Kosky, Benedict Andrews, Gideon Obarzanek, David Berthold or Daniel Keene, to name just a few – work between Europe and Australia, often developing significant careers overseas. We don’t have expatriates any more, we have a culture of nomads. Ranters Theatre and Doubletap are no exception; in recent years, they’ve both toured Europe, garnering plaudits along the way. And it's easy to see why they attract attention.

From writing to performance to design, Holiday is a devastatingly elegant show. Using black curtains, designer Anna Tregloan has enclosed an intimate auditorium within the vasty heights of the North Melbourne Town Hall. Once you find your way through the slightly disorientating darkness, you see before you a small stage that is effectively a white box. In the centre is a blue paddling pool, on which float two huge, brightly coloured beach balls. To one side is an absurd velvet chaise lounge, and on the other are a couple of stools.

The actors, Paul Lum and Patrick Moffat, sit either side of the stage. They are wearing shorts and bathers, and they are apparently relaxing: sighing, rolling their shoulders and stretching, smiling at each other with the slight apology of strangers sharing an intimate space. It’s clear that they’re indulging in that strange Western ritual, the holiday.

Before long, the silence stretches into anxiety. Somebody has to speak. And somebody does. What follows is utterly enchanting: absurd, gentle and profound. It’s a series of apparently artless, inconsequential dialogues, interspersed with a capella performances of baroque love songs by Schubert, Bononcini or Gluck that excavate the unspoken desires that run beneath the skin of idle conversation.

Raimondo Cortese's dialogues have an airy sense of improvisation, seemingly leading nowhere, but they are written with acutely honed skill. They create a sparkling surface that unobstrusively hints at depth: underneath we sense sadness, loneliness, vulnerability. Some have an air of comic confession (one man compulsively lies about himself; the other, a lapsed Catholic, regularly attends confession to relieve his mind of childhood betrayals). And others circle around performance, exploring the different selves we present to the world and to ourselves, the idea that we are always, in one way or another, acting.

At one point, one man departs the stage (to buy, as we discover, a chocolate bar and a soft drink), leaving the other in solitude. The lights come down: it is evening, and a sense of peace fills the theatre. We watch, with the lone man, a ship pass over the horizon (a video inspired by Simryn Gill’s work Vessel) and for once, the awkward question of self is left behind, absorbed in contemplation.

The production is superb, backed by a subtly nuanced sound design by David Franzke, and beautiful lighting by Niklas Pajanti. But what matters in this show is the text and the performances, and Adriano Cortese has orchestrated these with delicacy and attention. Lum and Moffat are stunning performers, achieving the extremely difficult task of doing nothing on stage with apparent effortlessness. You can’t take your eyes off them.

In its artful artlessness, Holiday reminded me of the anti-spectacle of Jérôme Bel’s beautiful Pichet Klunchun and Myself, which was one of the highlights of last year’s Melbourne Festival. Like Bel, Ranters Theatre achieves a profound and joyous lightness.

Angus Cerini’s one man show, a post-apocalyptic dance piece, couldn’t be more different: here there is minimal text, and Cerini and his collaborators create a rich stage environment that includes video projections, dramatic lighting (strobes, spotlights) and a huge set that evokes a world of human ruins. Chapters from the Pandemic, a project that emerges from Chunky Move’s Maximised program, imagines a world in which all living creatures have been killed by humankind.

Cerini's vision isn't a million miles from Konstantin’s ill-fated playlet in Chekhov’s The Seagull:

Men, lions, eagles, and partridges, horned deer, geese, spiders, silent fish that dwell in the deep, starfish, and creatures invisible to the eye – these, and all living things, all, all living things, having completed their sad cycle, are no more…The bodies of all living creatures have turned to dust, eternal matter has turned them into stones, water, clouds, and all their souls have merged into one. That great world soul – is I…

Like Konstantin's "world soul", Cerini's human is the last living creature in the world, the final locus of memory within a dead landscape. When you enter the theatre, a naked man is displayed on what looks like a laboratory table. And I mean naked: he is, from head to toe, completely hairless. At first he seems to be a statue, utterly still, even breathless, but he draws in a shuddering breath, and then another. He is alive.

What we witness over the next 50 minutes is a man, but a man reduced to a state of new infancy. He is without speech, and he must relearn his body: how to walk, how to hold things, how pushing breath through his larynx permits him to make a noise. Slowly he begins to explore a frightening and mysterious world, a world of jarring edges and objects whose use he does not understand, while confused memory plays in his head in a jumble of sound and light.

Kelly Ryall’s score shifts from lyrically plucked guitar to ambient animal noises (bird song, the lowing of cows) to loud, abstract bangs and howls, and fills the space as dramatically as Michael Carmody’s video projections, which assault the stage, playing over Cerini’s body so that its vestiges of humanity are almost dissolved in a chaos of light and shadow.

Cerini’s performance – grotesque, touching, vulnerable, utterly concentrated – is astoundingly brave. His nakedness is the least part of it: he tests our patience and attention, taking exactly as much time as he needs to shift between one state and another. The movement oscillates between moments of lyrical stillness and extreme anarchy, when the body, its head engulfed in a gas mask, flings itself in ecstatic abandon. And at last, with neither sadness nor regret, the human body dissolves into the natural world.

Sometimes you feel that Cerini's vocabulary of gesture could be expanded, and that perhaps the space could be better exploited (the left hand of the stage, for example, is never visited). But these are quibbles: Chapters from the Pandemic is riveting, a strange elegy for a dead world that is somehow, to quote the poem in the program, a celebration of "human magic".

Picture: Angus Cerini in Chapters from the Pandemic.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If there's anyone who is thinking of going to "Holiday" but hasn't decided yet, my vote is GO!! Wonderful understated dialogue, performed in a beautifully nuanced way.
I went Tuesday night and there were only 5 people there. Yeah, it was Tuesday and that's not a common night for theatre. But it will be a real shame if a lot more people don't get to this.