Review: Care Instructions, I Like This ~ theatre notes

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Review: Care Instructions, I Like This

Care Instructions by Cynthia Troup, directed by Margaret Cameron. Music by David Young, lighting design by Danny Pettingall. With Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee. La Mama @ The Courthouse until November 29.

I Like This, choreographed and directed by Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry. Lighting and sound by Antony Hamilton and Byron Perry. Costumes by Paula Levis. With Antony Hamilton, Stephanie Lake, Alisdair Macindoe, Byron Perry and Lee Serle. Chunky Move - The Next Move, Chunky Move Studio, until November 29.

O, my back, my back, my bach! I’d want to go to Aches-les-Pains. Pingpong! There’s the Belle for Sexaloitez! And Concepta de Send-us-pray! Pang! Wring out the clothes! Wring in the dew! Godavari, vert the showers! And grant thaya grace! Aman. Will we spread them here now? Ay, we will. Flip ! Spread on your bank and I’ll spread mine on mine. Flep! It’s what I’m doing. Spread ! It’s churning chill. Der went is rising. I’ll lay a few stones on the hostel sheets. A man and his bride embraced between them. Else I’d have sprinkled and folded them only. And I’ll tie my butcher’s apron here. It’s suety yet. The strollers will pass it by. Six shifts, ten kerchiefs, nine to hold to the fire and this for the code, the convent napkins, twelve, one baby’s shawl. Good mother Jossiph knows, she said. Whose head? Mutter snores? Deataceas! Wharnow are alle her childer, say? In kingdome gone or power to come or gloria be to them farther? Allalivial, allalluvial!

Finnegan's Wake, James Joyce

Sometimes it's assumed that the sheer pleasure of playfulness indicates a concomitant lack of seriousness. This makes me think of a Chinese ink drawing I saw many years ago at the old Melbourne Museum, a portrait of an enormously fat Buddhist monk reclining idly on the ground. I have seldom seen such knowingness so economically expressed in a few brushstrokes. He was looking out with an expression of profound, unmalicious mischief, his face luminous with some deep, mysterious joy: he seemed to hold within him a bubbling fountain of laughter on the verge of erupting. I know just about everything, the monk seemed to be saying. But, in the face of eternity, human knowledge is a huge joke. So pass me the rice wine and the dumplings...

At the other end of the scale - or maybe not - is the seriousness of children at play. For children, play is crucial means of discovering their worlds, of beginning to grapple with the things that baffle or frighten or fascinate them. The truthful aspect of the oft-cited (and pejorative) description of artists as "childish" is that artists have never stopped playing. Why, after all, are plays called plays? And this playfulness is particularly clear in these two pieces of theatre, one a dance, one a beautiful realisation of a poetic text.

It was impossible not to think of James Joyce's richly playful Finnegan's Wake - in particular, the famous passage on the washerwomen by the River Liffey - when watching Cynthia Troup's fantasia on washing, Care Instructions. While Troup can't hope to match Joyce's encyclopaedic wordplay and linguistic inventiveness (well, who can?) she draws similarly on a deep well of myth, rafting her melodious language with allusions from fairytales, nursery rhymes, poetry, the Bible, Greek myth, washing instructions from the labels of clothes, and any number of other sources.

In Margaret Cameron's hands (and with her marvellous trio of performers) it becomes an enchanting evening of theatre. I use the term advisedly. Some kind of magic is going on in this incantatory language: a summoning of the sensual pleasures of clean sheets and crisp linens, the smell of washing in sunlight; a joyous celebration of the labour that invisibly cleanses the human world. Like all magic, it's double-edged: cleanliness implies filth and disease. And magic of any kind pulls on darkness as well as light, just as the self is a dense, amoral weave of good and bad, the selfish and altruistic.

Care Instructions is irresistibly Beckettian, not only in how the performers are constrained by being in big laundry bags, but also in how it resembles a painting or installation. It opens with a filmed monologue, performed by Liz Jones in a mob cap, projected onto the circular window of a dryer (whose drone accompanies much of the play, sending out the scent of warm, dry laundry). As she speaks, the linen bags that litter the set begin to move, like strange larvae, until at last they give birth to three women (Jones, Caroline Lee and Jane Bayly). What follows is a meld of nursery rhyme, story, song, dance (and, of course, washing instructions).

It could be merely whimsical or even kitsch, but manages to avoid both. I can't think of a better way to disperse the clouds of a bleak Melbourne evening than to spend some time with these three witches - or graces, as they also are.

Unless, of course, you wander down to Chunky Move to see I Like This, the collaboration between young choreographers Byron Perry and Antony Hamilton. Anyone who has watched these dancers in action will be familiar with their physical wit, and here is an opportunity to see how dancers can make brilliant clowns. I Like This is, appropriately enough, an almost preternaturally likeable show.

The conceit is simple: we are watching a work being assembled as it is performed. Hamilton and Perry crouch for most of the time centre-stage, fiddling with a sound system and surrounded by a wild tangle of wires, the evil geniuses orchestrating the action. Stephanie Lake is - initially at least - a kind of tv-show host, rather like the role played by Brian Lipson in Two-Faced Bastard (with which this show bears some affinities).

All lighting and sound is lo-tech and controlled by the performers. Much of the visual wit emerges from hand-held lights that the performers switch on and off in the total darkness of the Chunky Move studio, revealing brief glimpses of vignettes or comic poses that invite any number of narratives from the audience. It's performed to a collage of music that ranges from early blues to Phillip Glass, with side references to zombie movies or Star Wars. It's unashamedly self-referential - this is a dance that is all about itself - yet its teeming imaginativeness ensures that it's continually surprising. It is as if the choregraphers have sketched out a couple of formal conceits and then squeezed out every possibility and combination.

What drives the show is the play between the choreographers' control and the way the dance continually seems to escape them. And what makes it work is the dancers' split-second precision and physical humour. Often it is laugh-out-loud funny, but this doesn't erase the possibility of some beautiful moments - a lone dancer with a light wandering into the darkness until she becomes a star wandering through the firmament, or the two choreographers crouched beneath a doona cover that transforms into a cloud at the centre of an electrical storm, before they emerge, like two naughty boys playing at bedtime, to argue about how best to end the show.

Picture: Jane Bayly, Liz Jones and Caroline Lee in Care Instructions.

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