MIAF Diary #5: Jack Charles v. The Crown, Adapting for Distortion / Haptic ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

MIAF Diary #5: Jack Charles v. The Crown, Adapting for Distortion / Haptic

Now I'm facing Melbourne Festival Week #3: and I confess that my feathers are a little bedraggled, my tail and whiskers a little less than perky. Since the beginning of September, when I attended the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, life has been as tightly packed as a spiral erbium-doped waveguide amplifier; and believe me, that's tightly packed. If all the words I've written in the past six weeks had been devoted to a novel, I'd have written at least Death In Venice or The Leopard by now. (This is why I have these recurring nightmares of finding myself on my death bed with a list of all the great books I never wrote scrolling across the inside of my eyelids - but that's another plaint.)

Week #2 began benignly last Tuesday with Jack Charles V. The Crown, a genuinely feel-good show in which Indigneous performer Jack Charles tells his own story. In 2008, Charles was the subject of an award-winning documentary, Bastardy, which frankly examined his drug addiction and thievery. On the evidence of Jack Charles v The Crown, which functions as a kind of theatrical sequel, Bastardy changed Charles’s life, by giving him a chance to see objectively what it was, and opening him to a new public. Charles's frankly expressed sense of his own mortality and his plain desire to redeem his life - he has been clean now for six years - is one of the most moving moments of this show.

The show is essentially Charles’s plea to have his criminal record expunged. The second half is a theatricalisation of an address to the High Court, with the first providing biographical context. Strung together with songs, some nifty audio-visuals and a tight band, it makes a well-crafted piece of theatrical cabaret. It opens with a long voice-over, during which we watch Charles skilfully throwing a clay pot on a wheel, which generates all the absorption of watching a craftsman at work. At the centre of this show is the potent metaphor of clay - as an image of the malleability of the human soul, its ability to be turned towards good or ill, and especially to demonstrate the sensuous - even erotic - thrill of making.

Co-written by Charles and John Romeril and directed by Rachael Maza Long, this show literally embodies a significant slice of theatrical and social history. John Romeril - author of the Australian classic play The Floating World - has worked in Australian theatre for more than four decades, and was a founding member and leading light of the Australian Performing Group, which revolutionised Australian theatre through the 1970s. Rachael Maza Long is the daughter of playwright and actor Bob Maza, who was a driving force behind Indigenous theatre in the 1970s, and was also a prominent activist. Maza Long has had a distinguished career as actor and performer, and is the artistic director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, the longest running indigenous company in Australia and the only one in Victoria.

And Jack Charles? He's social and theatrical history in person. Born during World War 2, he was taken from his mother at six months and raised in boys' homes in the suburbs of Melbourne, before embarking on a life of drug addiction and petty crime that saw him spend nearly half his life behind bars. Early in the show, Charles shows some photographs of himself, aged perhaps nine: a sweet-faced, luminous boy, notably the only dark-skinned child in the picture. The show is in part a simply biography, showing without self-pity how the mechanisms of racism and institutionalism (like many others, he was abused in the boys' homes) shaped this young boy's life.

Charles's story is the classic story of Aboriginal deracination: he was brought up in total ignorance of his own culture and family, and didn't even know that he had 12 siblings until he was an adult. When he first met his relatives, who lived in inner-city Fitzroy, he was dreadfully punished by his foster family, who were obviously terrified he might return to his black roots and shame them all. The psychic effects of his treatment are left to our imagination: we don't need to join many dots to see how poverty, addiction and petty crime emerge from a cultural vacuum that amounts to an erasure of oneself. It's a story that's been told again and again, and not only in the Stolen Generation narratives: the stories of Native Americans, for example, are horrifically similar.

Yet shot through this is another parallel story, that of the performer and maker: the Elder who founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana, and who has worked major Australian stages and acted in some iconic films. For all the weight of the story, this is a light-hearted, even joyous, show, sharply directed by Maza Long. Nigel Maclean's musical direction drives the rhythms under the monologues, keeping things moving and tight. Even opening night uncertainties and the odd bit of prompting didn’t dampen the charm of this show, which is an open-hearted crowd-pleaser.

Adapting for Distortion & Haptic are two dances by Japanese dancer and choreographer Hiroaki Umeda that combine some electronic wizardry with a bit of stylised hiphop derived dance. It is almost at the opposite end of the theatrical spectrum to Jack Charles v. The Crown, a show where presence and heart is everything. Here, the body is an absence in the world of electronic signals, a shadow that interrupts the white noise of technology.

It certainly has its moments: Umeda vanishing altogether into shadows in Haptic as colours pulse on the stage; startling images of an absent body that paradoxically is stubbornly, even subversively there in Adapting for Distortion. Yet I couldn't help feeling that I had seen all this before, even if I haven't; I know that others have been talking about Chunky Move's Mortal Engine, which similarly (and more interestingly) puts the human body in uneasy dialogue with technology, but I'd rather think of Chunky Move's exquisitely satisfying solo piece Glow. which has rather more in common with Umeda's ambitions. Umeda's choreographic and visual vocabulary seems limited in comparison: I found myself feeling that the dance was merely repeating its tropes, rather than deepening their meanings. And so, despite their shortness, felt myself becoming a little bored.

Pictures: Top: Jack Charles. Photo: Steven Rhall; bottom, Hiraoki Umeda in Adapting for Distortion. Photo: Shin Yamagata

Jack Charles V. The Crown, by Jack Charles and John Romeril, directed by Rachael Maza Long. Design by Emily Barrie, lighting by Danny ettingill, music direction Nigel MacLean. Performed by Jack Charles, with music performed by Nigel MacLean, Phil Collings and Mal Beveridge. Ilbijerri Theatre Company @ Fairfax Theatre, Victorian Arts Centre (closed). Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney, March 30 to April 17.

Adapting for Distortion/Haptic, created and performed by Hiroaki Umeda. Sound by S20, images by S20 and Betrand Baudry. Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse. Closed.

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