Dust (Brisbane Powerhouse and Hubcap Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Powehouse Theatre
November 22 – 24
“Dust” is a collaboration quite unlike any other theatre experience. This is immediately clear upon entry into the Powerhouse Theatre, which is transformed into a town marketplace among which audience members are encouraged to wander during breaks in the main stage activity.
Booths contain a variety of installations presented by teachers, hairdressers, bricklayers and alike, ranging from the comedy of Jeff Turpin as a 2011 floods mud army man to the poignancy of widow Claire Kennedy’s phone conversation with Telstra in attempt to finally cancel her dead husband’s account. ‘Nobody told me it was dangerous’ is a clear theme. Yet, while Act One represents an interesting variance to traditional theatre expectations, its execution could be improved. With spruiking performers competing for audience attention, it is often difficult to access and hear what is going on within each booth, especially with a large audience.
Presented on the main stage is a (sometimes comic) lecture on asbestos and the early history of James Hardie, complimented by Mark Seymour (of Hunters and Collectors fame) doing what he does best, performing live on stage. The power and lyricism of his “Lights of Antarctica” and “Secrets of Camellia Dust” pack a huge emotional punch. Indeed, the music is the show’s highlight, with Seymour’s haunting delivery complemented by the Dust chorus, comprised of the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir.
The second half of the show offers a more conventional approach, during which stories glimpsed in the booths are expanded through song. Comedy pervades, and far from being depressing, the production is joyous and touching. The politics is acknowledged, but not dwelled upon. Given the manner in which mentions of James Hardie and Gina Rinehart are met with audience jeers and heckles, this is probably a wise choice by writer Donna Jackson, whose script represents James Hardie Industries thorough a corporate businessmen who reflects on a ‘difficult year’, assures shareholders their money is safe and requests a salary raise for directors.
Reality is evident when the audience is shown x-ray projections and video of real life suffers, explaining their stories. Though it is both confronting and moving to hear them tell of breathing with what feels like ‘lungs full of fishhooks,’ the inclusion of their words is a credit to the producers who research and present local stories from each place the show is performed.
Similarly provoking is the revelation of the range of domestic products that were made with asbestos (including toothpaste and playdough) and the fact that health risks were documented since the 1930s but kept hidden by manufacturers. So central is this educational aspect, that as audience members depart, they are each given a sample bag of information and alike on the issue.
However, the show is not just an exploration of the grim history of the Australian asbestos industry and the tragedy of all those who have lost their lives. It was developed as a celebration of the fortitude and bravery of those affected by asbestos related diseases. And in this, “Dust” is certainly successful. As I overheard a fellow patron comment at its conclusion, “it was very lively for something about death.”
*A review of this show also appears on the XS Entertainment website.