Crouch contemplations

ENGLAND (Nathan Booth, Matt Seery & Metro Arts)

Metro Arts, Gallery

April 19 – 29

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In a post-show Q and A session to his 2013 Brisbane Festival show “I, Malvolio”, Tim Crouch described his advocacy of asking new questions about the artform through increasing consciousness of the alert and alive relationship between audiences and theatre makers, united in a live situation. Those who saw Crouch’s “An Oak Tree” at the Bille Brown Studio in 2011 will expect no less from the experimental theatre maker, given that work’s failure to play by ‘the rules’ by including a guest actor, without script familiarity, being guided through the performance by stage directions fed through an earpiece.

This is the world of Tim Crouch and of his 2007 work “ENGLAND”, which rejects typical theatrical conventions and, instead, invites its audience to help create the work. Perhaps as a consequence, the provocative text has only ever been performed once before in Australia. But this only makes the Queensland premiere of the tricky work from Nathan Booth and Matt Seery, the Hamish and Andy of the Brisbane theatre scene, all the more impressive.

Certainly there are easier challenges in theatre than taking on a show like “ENGLAND”. The script allows for anything; lines are not allocated to performers and there are no stage directions or indications regarding set or lighting. Yet, in Seery’s directorial hands, the scatter becomes a sophisticated performance work that starts as a gallery tour before becoming so much more in its look at life and impending death.

The story is well suited to the intimate venue of Metro Arts’ Gallery and the staging is well managed to account for the limitations of the space, which sees the action move from Brisbane to London and from a clean-lined gallery to a shabby sitting room. It begins with two attendants who share a duologue in talk of a wealthy art-dealer boyfriend in need of a heart transplant and as guide of the audience through a contemporary art exhibition (the work of artists Amelia K Fulton, Brigid Holt, Dana Lawrie, Charlie Meyers and Damien Pasquale), with comment on the works’ amazing colours and how art should be for all. As the audience is urged to look at the lines and colours and even the wood of the floor, we are reminded of the beauty of life’s little details, even as description moves to what’s on the walls of a doctor’s surgery and then in the search for health at any cost. It is a work of two acts at either end of the stylistic spectrum and yet it works, more because of, rather than in spite of, its contrasting forms.

Give the site-specific nature of the work, audience members should aim to arrive early to wander around the gallery until the work begins with performers Barbara Lowing and Steven Tandy parting the crowd to take command of the space. A two-hander from Lowing and Tandy is weighted with expectation; each brings a wealth of experience to the show and, accordingly, in their hands, the dialogue flows easily without overwhelming the delicate nature of the production.

Lowing is a tour-de-force on any stage and Tandy gives a finely balanced performance in counterpoint to the vulnerability and strength of her presence. Indeed, it is testament to the craft of both the artists that they are at most captivating when seated in a conversation of sorts for second half of show, when travel is made to an unnamed country to thank the widow of a heart donor with a gift of a valuable painting. The ambient sound design and intricately composed score, are similarly memorable in their frame of the story’s essential emotions.

“ENGLAND” is a wonderful show of little details and big thematic ideas about, for example, the effect of art and what constitutes its meaning. Much like last week’s Australian Stella Prize annual literary award winner, “The Museum of Modern Love”, it captures art’s ability to ‘wake you up, break your heart and make you fearless’.

The creators of the exhibition/performance/gallery tour that is “ENGLAND” have crafted something very special from its most arbitrary of guidelines. At once beautiful, powerful and devastating, it is an affecting and rewarding theatrical interaction, layered with meaning for contemplation and conversation about the difference between looking and seeing and the need for art in all its manifestations to enrich, sustain and lift us out of life’s hardships.

Territory Truths

Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre Company and Jute Theatre Company)

The Greenhouse, Bille Brown Studio

April 6 – 16

A male voice begins from beneath the cloak of darkness, asking what identity the audience can create from just its sounds. What follows this initial challenge is a very human account of the narrator, Russell’s (Benhur Helwend) search for self, set against the story of a city’s attempts to carve out an identity. Russell is determined to be more than just a Friday night drag show (although his Act Three Bassey-esque “This Is My Life” is as impressive as it is thematically appropriate). But he is conflicted by his past. He doesn’t know who his biological father is, his mother Lois (Lauren Jackson) disappeared when he was eight and he has been raised by a conservative father Neville, who carries his own demons from his time in 1960s New Guinea, before repatriation to Darwin.

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Over three acts, and with help from era-evocative costumes and soundtracks, the audience is transported back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and then the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as the city sits poised for political progress. With mentions of mahjong, TAA and apricot chicken, the Tupperware world of 1960s expats is established early in Act One. Newly-married, former hostie Lois doesn’t take naturally to the colonial plantation attitude of some within her new Port Moresby home, clashing deliciously in her interactions with the spiteful Nanette (played to perfection by Suellen Maunder), a woman initially loveably stereotypical in her delight in others’ business and later passively aggressive in her manipulations. With Lois’ public servant husband Neville (Peter Norton) forcussed on his work, she joins the ‘Moresby Arts Theatre’, where her mind is not all that is stimulated.

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Fast forward a stormy post-Tracey Darwin, when the kaftans and crème de menthe are both flowing to a soundtrack of Nana Mascuri and Abba and, unbeknown to Russell, the past arrives to catch up with his mother and tear her away from his life. Then it is 2001 and Russell and his partner Alistair have transformed Russell’s childhood home into a hip, urban art gallery by day, queer cabaret venue by night, much to the chagrin of Russel’s now elderly father.

It is a complex story, directed with precision by Ian Lawson, to account for the multiple roles of four of six actors in the cast. Helwend, in particular shows remarkable versatility, equally convincing in his varied potential father roles of draft-dodging artist, fierce freedom fighter and obliging houseboy, and also especially as his almost eight-year-old narrator self in Act Two. And Jackson captures the conflict of his mother, torn as she is between her need to nurture, want towards wanderlust and dissatisfaction with her lot in life.

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The standout performance, however, comes from the Country Party Minister Neville Senior (Steven Tandy) of Act Three, cutting in his comments to his son, accepting of his party’s impending loss of long-term power and cognisant of his own mortality

Like an anecdotal reflection “Bastard Territory” is not linear in its narrative, but, like memory, the saga jumps around a little in recall of events, all while maintaining a central focus on a flawed family. Stephen Carelton has created a story that is wry with humour, yet powerful and affecting. Some of its most commanding moments come from when dialogue is delivered in unison from the younger Neville, overlooked by his aged self.

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This is what makes the show so rewarding; the fact that at the core of the confessional drama is a beautiful story about people, not just ideas, brought to life by a superb cast. As such, it is well worth the investment of time to join Russell on his journey towards discovery of his truth.

Photos c/o – Stephen Henry Photography + Film