Review: This Kind of Ruckus ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Review: This Kind of Ruckus

I've been meaning to catch up with version 1.0 for years. Under the guidance of David Williams - listed, I note uneasily, as the company's CEO - this Sydney-based theatre has established itself as one of Australia's must-see companies, redefining and, most of all, revitalising contemporary political theatre.

One of the few Australian companies that lists political engagement as its raison d'etre, version 1.0 has developed a theatrical language that jams found texts from a variety of public sources - court transcripts, media interviews, television shows - against the personal stories of the performers. In their own words, version 1.0 "engages with significant political and social issues using innovative theatrical strategies". The corporate-speak mission-statement vocab is off-putting, but don't let it deter you: this is a company alive to the complexities, ambiguities and, above all, the deceptions of language. Not least, one suspects, its own language. On the evidence of This Kind of Ruckus, the company's ambitions work in ironic counterpoint with the jargon it employs, takes apart and, ultimately, subverts.

Version 1.0's previous work includes shows about the Australian Wheat Board scandal (Deeply offensive and utterly untrue); the ethics of the invasion of Iraq (The Wages of Spin) and the scandal and tragedy of SIEV-X, the boat of asylum seekers that sank in 2001, killing 353 people (CMI: A Certain Maritime Incident). This Kind of Ruckus steps into the equally explosive arena of sexual politics. It's certainly the most lucid demonstration I've seen anywhere of the lose-lose deal that goes with being a woman in a patriarchal society, and I walked out of the show feeling a deep, ancient rage burning its way to the surface of my psyche.

This Kind of Ruckus is an exploration of sexual violence, beginning with the notoriously misogynist culture of leagues clubs in NSW. In the careful, intelligent hands of the five performers - Valerie Berry, Arky Michael, Katia Molino, Kym Vercoe and David Williams - this potential minefield not only makes excellent theatre, it makes its point.

It avoids simplistic portrayals of woman-as-victim, man-as-aggressor - images that permit us to avoid thinking about the complexities of sexual violence - and throws an uneasy light on the grey areas that exist between these too-easy absolutes. It makes the point that women want sex just as much as men do, that women can be filthy, ugly, rude, aggressive and criminal, just as men can be. Yet in a society that privileges the male, a woman's expressions of desire will be seen differently from a man's. Ultimately, a woman's sexuality will be used against her: her own desire can be used to violate her autonomy, to grind down and destroy her sense of self.

We all know about the famous double-standard, but this is a show uninterested in binaries, the easy hefting of blame. Instead, it seeks to make its audience more conscious of the implications of language and actions that many people never give a second thought. With intelligent repetition and juxtaposition, This Kind of Ruckus excavates the realities of male privilege. Patiently, without histrionics or exaggeration, it exposes how the female subject is routinely marginalised and even erased by the unexamined assumptions that place the male at the centre of legitimate experience.

And it does all this through effective, vernacular theatre, which is neither didactic nor simple-minded. From the opening moments, when each performer walks separately onto the stage in front of a drawn curtain, the performers exploit familiar images and gestures: here the men and the women parody cheerleaders, posing theatrically before the audience with their red pompoms. At a given signal, the actors perform a complicated twirl that leaves all five seated and apparently in the middle of lively conversation. Like everything that follows, it's sharp, clever and arresting.

The action weaves around a central recurring image - David Williams, a shaven-headed, heavy-set man, seated on a chair looking straight at the crotch of an unconscious woman (Kym Vercoe), who is stretched out on the floor. Her left leg is propped slightly, so the pose is exactly the same as the woman in Gustave Courbet's iconic erotic painting, The Origin of the World. Williams is inscrutable: he is looking, but seems to have no pleasure from what he is seeing; he is transfixed but curiously passive. Sad, perhaps; creepy, perhaps; threatening, maybe. It's an image of aftermath: the one thing we know is that something has happened.

The show itself is a collage of fragmentary narratives - a couple in therapy; a personal anecdote of a horrific unacknowledged rape; a quote from Matthew Johns's notorious shamed interview, from Four Corners; glimpses of a woman who is a victim of domestic violence - that are punctuated by dancing and seduction to pulsing electronic funk in a leagues club, where beer in plastic cups is lined up on a makeshift bar. Two screens dislocate the action further, sometimes projecting live action, sometimes not. The show winches up unease, cutting deeper and deeper into the ordinary, everyday self-deceits of which no one is not guilty, paring away at the exceptionalism which permits the audience - ourselves - to claim that it's them, not us.

The point is not to drive home a lesson, which can be easily learned and as easily forgotten, but to open a scab. Scratch this kind of theatre, and it's no surprise to find Brecht. Version 1.0's practice is in fact a very smart contemporary application of Brecht's theory of Epic Theatre, which by describing an event from the contradictory angles of all its witnesses, attempts to build a truthful picture of what happened. Above all, it's a dynamic picture, that opens out of the comforts of received wisdom the uncomfortable prickling of consciousness. Yes, it reminds you of the reasons to be angry: but most of all, at various levels from the subconscious up, it provokes thought. Frankly, it's pretty rare to find theatre that so clearly and stylishly does exactly what it says it intends to do.

This Kind of Ruckus, devised by Danielle Antaki, Sean Bacon, Arky Michael, Jane Phegan, Deborah Pollard, Christopher Ryan, Yana Taylor, Kym Vercoe and David Williams with Stephen Klinder. Performed by Valerie Berry, Arky Michael, Katia Molino, Kym Vercoe and David Williams. Video art by Sean Bacon, sound art by Gail Priest, lighting by Neil Simpson. Version 1.0 @ the Fairfax Studio, Victorian Arts Centre, until August 28.


David Williams said...

Dear Alison - Thanks for the passionate and astute review of RUCKUS - much appreciated, and a very welcome contribution to the debate around both the work and the political context around the piece.

I find your shudder at my title a little confusing, though perhaps understandable, and I note also that you are not the first person to have such a response.

All organisations, especially theatre companies, have CEOs. It's just that in the case of the theatre, they are usually called 'artistic directors'. I thought what might be interesting is the fact that whilst I lead the company version 1.0 inc., I am in no way the artistic director. I do manage the company, set strategic direction in consultation with our artist committee and our committee of management, but in relation to the artworks themselves, I am very much part of a team. Collaboration is our raision d'ĂȘtre, and this for us is a political act that parallels our choice of political subject matters. I find the hackles that seem to rise at the thought that we have adopted some corporate model foreign to art practice quite strange. If anything, we have been much more transparent about the fact that version 1.0, like all other theatre companies operating professionally as organisations, do in fact have a corporate model, one prescribed to us by legislation. How we intervene into this model is not to pretty it up with claims of artistic genius in leadership - we are a team of artists, and this is where the work comes from. The structures that support this team, well, that's the corporate model. This model enables the art. Why not be transparent about that? A CEO is a function, a person who carries high level responsibility; it's not an alien idea for arts practice, much as many companies might wish to hide this away out of view to maintain romantic illusions about the supposed separations of art and organisational cultures.

Anyway, I hope that might make this idea somewhat clearer. There have been several martinis tonight, so perhaps I'm deluding myself. Thanks again for the response. It warmed the cockles of several hearts.

Alison Croggon said...

Absolutely my pleasure, David. It's a gift to be able to write about such interesting work.

I wholly take you point on the corporate question (and, well, I was teasing a little...) A fascinating answer, too. I think you're correct about the transparency of process. Does it ever tie you up in knots, wondering whether the corporate structure you adopt, surely the acme of expression of the capitalist/corporate world, might somehow negate or compromise your critique? Or does it just firmly state a dilemma? And I guess that you might (as, indeed, I would) fiercely reject notions of artistic "purity"...

Anonymous said...

eagerly awaiting David's response to Alison's last question (give him a kick in the pants Al).

all vewy intewesting... thanks!

Alison Croggon said...

Getting out me boots. Though he might be a bit busy....