Cultural confrontation

Flat Out Like a Lizard (Robert the Cat)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

December 2 – 12

“Just a story about the dark”, Norman Price’s “Flat Out Like a Lizard” is billed as…. “You there in the dark, me here in the dark”. This is indeed true, however, there are many more motifs and through-lines operating than just that of darkness, and untangling and making sustained sense of them all asks a lot of its audience, especially given the show’s indulgent 90-minute duration. Indeed, while there is a clever use of clues in its connection of perspectives, this confronting piece of post-modernist theatre is not for the conventional theatre goer … but perfectly positioned for the provocation typical of many Metro Arts shows.

The Australian playwright, director, actor and theatre scholar’s work is not one but many stories… Australian stories that span a century. Through the eyes of a rotating Lazarus White, mysterious and dangerous, characters emerge from within some moments of dark humour. But is there a market for them? And what is a writer to do when a committee of experts remains unconvinced of their marketability. It is through this that the work asks its most enduring questions about the value of the arts and storytelling, which are particularly poignant right now given the manner with which the pandemic has disrupted the industry.

As White presents each story snippet to the committee of gatekeepers funding a production, we are tantalised with just enough for connection before being shocked out of their allure by harsh lighting and critical committee member bombasts of “we have set criteria to address”, “there’s no market for this” and “nobody wants this” et al. The stories themselves make an unequivocal impact, not only through their sometimes strong language and disturbing content. They are told by performers Katy Cotter, Amy Hauser, Darcy Jones, Peter Keavy and Thea Milburn, who each take turn to play the central character of Lazarus White (symbolised by a stylised jacket transfer) and assume other support roles at other times, which allows each actor distinct opportunities to shine in sometimes menacing vignettes. Darcy Jones, in particular, gives a chilling description of a shocking theatre experience of a little man that will leave you reconsidering how you sit in the stalls from now on.

Heightening the impact of many the highly-stylised stories, Geoff Squire’s lighting design paints the New Benner Theatre with a range of hues, including some less often typically seen on stage, which adds interest. Most memorably, our metatheatre opening introduction to Lazarus White’s navigation of the performance space as a metaphor his journey, illustrates how he affects and is affected by the performance space through its use of shadow and gaps in the space between light and dark.

Norman Price’s work is clearly divisive. “Flat Out Like a Lizard” may have moments that resonate, but it is not a work with mainstream appeal. It is darkly gothic and dangerous, but also both emotional and intellectual in its encouragement of audience engagement through hard work. It makes its point and it labours it hard, making the endurance of its experience more one of performance art than traditional theatre. Still, its take-away commentaries about the value and legitimacy of cultural artefacts, the roles of stories in our society and the crucial importance of cultural gatekeepers are valuable in their provocation.