Fringe: Attract/Repel, The Ridiculusmus Readings ~ theatre notes

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Fringe: Attract/Repel, The Ridiculusmus Readings

Attract/Repel is an intriguing work of theatre at the Store Room which meets, head-on, the question of racism. One of the best things about it is how it does so without fuss or apology, yet instead of visiting the expected arguments of victimisation or entitlement it manages - delicately and with humour - to excavate something of the complexities of human social relationships, to explore the fluidity of the categories of "us" and "them".

A devised work directed by Ming-Zhu Hii, and generated in collaboration with the performers (Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu and Terry Yeboah), Attract/Repel it has a pleasing transparency about its motives and aesthetic which focuses on the particularities of experience to illuminate general truths, rather than the other way around. The most important aspect of this approach is that contradiction is embraced rather than glossed.

As it begins, the four cast members enter the space one by one, each carrying a suitcase. Each is regarded with suspicion by those already occupying the territory of the stage, until they find their own space. It's an elegant introduction, and is almost a theatrical illustration of an image used by the poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger. In an essay on migration, he describes how one passenger in a train carriage will immediately occupy it. When another enters, he is regarded with mistrust, even veiled hostility; but once he has settled in, he too occupies the carriage. When a third passenger enters, both will regard the new occupant with the same mistrust, until she too has settled in. Enzensberger uses this metaphor to describe the tensions between successive waves of immigrants, pointing out that migration has been the essential history of human beings for millennia. Difference always generates hostility until it is absorbed into the fabric of a society, at which point it becomes part of the "us" that makes a "them".

Once all four performers are on stage, they introduce themselves by asking each other their full names. Because they are from different cultures - Chinese/Australian, Chinese/Indonesian, Indian/Celtic, Ghanaian - they each have names that immediately signal their differences: none has a standard western christian and surname, although their names have all been "translated" into western formats. They ask each other how many languages they speak (an average of about three each, as I recall). They ask each other to say "I love you" in their native language. Georgina's native language is English.

And so begins an intriguing exploration of the mechanics of making human beings "other". The achievement of Attract/Repel is that it at once enters the realm of personal experience and frames it in a series of wider questions: what is racism? Who is racist? Is racism only a question for white privilege? How, in a supposedly multicultural society, does it actually function? What does it feel like to encounter racism? And through these apparently simple questions, which immediately subvert themselves in ways that are comic, unexpected and moving, a picture emerges of something that is not simple at all: a social texture that is full of ambiguity and contradiction, and which is reinforced by the most apparently trivial of gestures as much as by its coarser manifestations.

Ming-Zhu Hii has learned a lot from Jérôme Bel, notably from the apparently straightforward simplicity of his approach in Pichet Klunchun and Myself. However, she has framed this work in a sculptural installation of neon lights designed by Damien McLean, originally inspired by a Dan Flavin installation. This framing makes it more self-consciously theatrical and less joyously transparent than Bel's work, but has its own attractions. The cast use chalk to write on blackboard walls, giving the work a pedagogical frame that is undermined by the playfulness of the performance. There is some stylised movement which doesn't always throw off the smell of studio improvisation, but on the whole the conceit is startlingly successful. The stern simplicity of the work liberates a sense of play, which in turn releases a very human complexity that evades the traps of earnestness or simple moralising.

What makes this work is ultimately the generosity and skill of the performers; they slip with grace and subtlety between raw expressiveness and artifice, keeping both qualities constantly in play. We are never quite permitted to forget that this is a performance, that these performers are playing characters, even if those characters are themselves. At the same time they bring to this consciously theatrical construction a disturbing ability to generate authentically naked emotion. It's intelligent and deeply felt theatre, alert to all its possible pitfalls and evading most of them. Ming-Zhu Hii and her collaborators have created a work that seems to be all light surfaces but which resonates in some deep places.

The Ridiculusmus Readings were, as the name suggests, a series of play-readings of works in progress by Ridiculusmus, the British comic duo, David Woods and Jon Haynes, who brought us an unforgettable The Importance of Being Earnest a few years ago. Over four nights, they read differing combinations of three plays, one of which involved a volunteer cast of around 50 people.

I'm not quite sure how to describe the reading I saw, which included the play with the cast of 50 (a hyper-theatrical and possibly awful play about Princess Diana called Goodbye Princess). For one thing, in the tiny La Mama space, the cast outnumbered the actual audience, although maybe it's truer to say that in many ways the cast and the audience were the same. Which made it a peculiarly immersive experience.

Both plays were reflections on contemporary Britain. Total Football is a two-hander about a PR campaign to jazz up enthusiasm for British Identity by finding golden moments in British public history (including Winston Churchill's declaration of war on Germany and a winning goal by David Beckham). It was a sly and hilarious pisstake on nationalism as a brand, performed with faultless comic timing by Haynes and Woods. Goodbye Princess was read by practically everyone. I guess it had the same concerns as the first play, with added metatheatrics and idiot royals. But what made it totally enjoyable was being in the middle of this anarchic communal reading, complete with misreadings, missing characters and lots of coarse acting. Totally irresistible fun.

Picture: Attract/Repel at the Store Room Theatre.

Attract/Repel, conceived and directed by Ming-Zhu Hii. Lighting design and dinstallation by Damien MacLean, with Rachel Burke, music by Yusuke Akai. With Jing -Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu and Terry Yeboah. The Melbourne Town Players @ The Store Room, Melbourne Fringe Festival, until October 10.

Ridiculusmus Readings by David Woods and John Haynes. La Mama Theatre, Melbourne Fringe Festival. Closed.

1 comment:

Jetsetting Joyce said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the play reading, I was in the play reading as Blogger 1. Although I had the whole script even I didn't completely understand what was going on, but that's the fun of Ridiculusmus - you just sit back and enjoy the hilarious ride.