Review: The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest / In the Arms of a Lion ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Review: The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest / In the Arms of a Lion

Melbourne Fringe Festival: The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, directed by Kate Sulan and Ingrid Voorendt. Set design by Emily Barrie, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound design by Jethro Woodward, music by Zoe Barry. Rawcus and Restless Dance Company, Dancehouse.

In The Arms of a Lion
, written by Peter van der Merwe, in collaboration with Penelope Chater. Directed by Penelope Chater, performed by Peter van der Merwe. Set by Brian Finlayson, lighting design by Katie Sfetkidis, sound design by Xana Chambers. White Swan Productions, Northcote Town Hall Studio 2 until October 4.

The haunting title of The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest is a quote from the early 20th century American novelist Willa Cather, who was notable for writing in plain, poetic speech about the lives of ordinary people. And this collaboration between Rawcus, a theatre which works with both disabled and abled performers, and the Adelaide dance company Restless, is an attempt to glimpse the most private desires of other people.

Rawcus produces unashamedly romantic work, rich with texture and colour and expressive lighting that frames the delicacy of the moments it is seeking to express. The Heart of Another... is no different. It is a sumptuous feast for the senses, from the live score and sound design, to the William Morris-style decorated walls and fabrics that are the main feature of the design. It's work that seeks a poise between delicacy and darkness, treading the border between the inscrutably private and its public expression.

The performance opens as the audience enters the space, where musicians are playing back stage and forestage a man is balletically posed, wearing a robe of excessive and androgynous luxury that recalls the ornateness of Regency Beaux, rather than feminine display. When the lights go down, the performers enter the stage one by one. Most of the cast is disabled, but here the focus is on the individuality of each person, challenging the generalised blindness that often comes with the label "disability".

The show consists of a series of encounters in which we are invited into private worlds, expressed through a series of often arresting theatrical images. Desire is symbolised in a variety of ways - as a jar in which is placed different objects or through play; through shadow theatre, when the curtains back stage open and reveal a counter-text of imaginings; through the shifting relationships of bodies on stage.

It's a show of interesting ambiguities and ambitions. There was one very moving moment when a girl with no arms discovers flight. The shy joy of the young performer was intensely poignant, revealing the ambition of the show, its movement towards freedom through the expressiveness of imagination.

There is a danger in this work of heading towards the twee, which The Heart of Another... evades because it unearths the ambiguity of desire, its darkness as well as its illuminations. Nevertheless, I felt an uneasiness about its decoration, the careful assembly of its images, that made me wonder if something was being obscured. As I watched, I thought of, say, the straightforwardness of Stephen Page's marvellous show Kin, which was devised with young members of his family, or Jérôme Bel's The Show Must Go On, which also investigates the depth of the everyday. Both these works achieved a passionate delicacy of communication in ways which I think The Heart of Another... just missed, for reasons that are very hard to trace.

One thought is that, where Bel wears his profound thinking lightly, finding a purity of performative expression that can ambush you with unexpected and joyous feeling, The Heart of Another... insists on its emotional integrity in a way that somehow impedes the experience of the moment. But for all that, it's a show which achieves moments of real beauty.

PETER van der Merwe's one-man play, In the Arms of a Lion, is an elegant and moving show which explores the effects of Apartheid on those who enforce its privilege. Its effects on the black population of South Africa are well known, but here van der Merwe is more concerned with what he calls the "deformation of the soul" that results from violently oppressing the majority of a country's population.

It consists of a series of monologues by different characters, all of them memories of a young gay man called Stephen, the son of a fundamentalist Afrikaaner family. His uncle is a priest who uses the Bible to justify the ideology of white supremacy as the will of God, and who expresses in a baldly shocking fashion (shocking only because of its utter conviction) the ugly realities of racism.

But this play is much more than a simple condemnation of plainly ugly social injustice. It opens with Stephen confessing his sexual orientation to his mother, who as a God-fearing woman is wholly distressed that her deeply loved son has revealed himself to be, in her eyes, an abomination. Stephen himself rejects the epithet "gay"; he prefers "queer". He loves to wear women's clothes, but not, he says, because he wants to impersonate a woman, but because he finds a deep pleasure in his own male body clothed in femininity. In the same way, as he says, when he puts on men's clothes, he is not "being a man": he is merely dressed as a man.

This subtext on the performance of gender reaches into the performance of race. Being "white" is as much a performance as any other, and comes with its particular rules and tabus. Stephen's sexual ambiguity makes him Other to his family and his community, even a traitor, and he lives in terror of being beaten up and killed. What gives this visceral weight is that he is constantly witness to how the other Others - those with black skin - are themselves brutalised and demonised.

Stephen's mother, who is much more than a caricature, is torn between her love for her son and her ingrained, unshakeable beliefs, which are reinforced by the fears that underlie them. Stephen's situation is not as simple as the young gay man being rejected by his family - emotionally brutalised himself by growing up in a state threatened constantly by terrorism, he is as much an agent of his alienation as his family.

In the Arms of a Lion is a complex and emotionally potent take on its subject, with its own clear parallels to Australia's less than glorious treatment of its own demonised others. I seldom say this, but I felt its hour-long format, while adequate, was too short - a little more air might have made the show less impressionistic. The design and direction reminded me rather of Peter Brook's production of Sizwe Banzi is Dead at last year's Melbourne Festival - a bare stage, simply but evocatively lit, with all the mechanics exposed and the performer changing character through costume. Absolutely basic and absolutely effective.

And it's a bravura performance from Peter van der Merwe, who handles all the registers, from pathos to comedy, with total commitment. Courageous theatre.


Born Dancin' said...

Just a quick note - Restless are from Adelaide; Back to Back are from Geelong, though, which could explain the typo.

Alison Croggon said...

That's a mistake, not a typo! Many thanks Born Dancin', fixed up now.

Anonymous said...

alison croggon please for the love of god go and see WHERE YOU BEEN HIDIN HETTIE RAE? by LA Gambin/Sissies & Sluts theatre.

it's the grandliest, finest piece of Theatre ever created.


antigonos said...

Theatre life in Athens, Greece, may not be as interesting as over there...
We still try to hold still, though.

TimT said...

As for meself, I went to see Lysistrata, which was grouse, but for the fact that the lead actress kept on waving her arms around and making weird gestures in a kind of misguided (though possibly unconscious?) homage to live physical comedy.