Two Plays at the Old Fitz

I used to work for Tamarama Rock Surfers at the Old Fitz, and since my last project there finished up in late April, I’ve found it difficult to go back for a casual visit. I think my reluctance to return is analogous to not wanting to see an ex-partner for a little while; after a long relationship and difficult break-up, you generally need to wait some time before you see each other again. So, on Sunday I went to the Old Fitz and, no, we didn’t end up shagging in a vain attempt to relive the glory days, but the company was fine and the coffee was quite good. I mean that all quite literally, I was even given a warm cup of coffee from Kym Vercoe during the performance of Seven Kilomemetres North East on Sunday night.

SEVEN KILOMETRES NORTH EAST: Kym Vercoe & Version 1.0, in association with Tamarama Rock Surfers (N.B. SPOILERS WITHIN)

SKNE is a devised work that responds to Vercoe’s three trips to  Bosnia and the Balkans. And, in particular, her stays at the Višegrad Spa Hotel, near Višegrad on the River Drina. SKNE is a devised one-woman performance that is part personal travelogue, part political-history lesson that combines monologue and audio-visual footage in a hybrid-narrative performance. The monlogue and performance is very polished and all AV went off smoothly, in trademark Version 1.0 style, demonstrating just how AV can and should be done in the theatre. The video footage, all of which was taken on Vercoe’s most recent trip to Bosnia, was successfully drawn into the narrative and made an integral part of the storytelling.

SKNE is a piece about the complex relationship between the tourist (Vercoe) and the place she visits (Bosnia/Višegrad). We learn a cool new word, “thano-tourism”. This issue is really interesting; “thanotourism” is travelling to a place with a history of death and trauma. Naming such an activity instantly makes it easier to question why we go to places like Auschwitz or The Killing Fields, and what it means to visit such a place. In short, why do we choose to be thanotourists? Vercoe, we discover, is the “accidental thanotourist”. That is, she went to a location unaware of the specifics of its violent past. Seven Kilometres North East is an attempt to comprehend her experience as an “accidental thanotourist”.

I really like the brief: rather than a piece that works to demonstrate the complex relationship between past and present, and the always already problematic nature of tourism,  SKNE takes such entanglements as its point of departure. This is rich ground for a performance piece. I really like the set of questions the performance seeks to illuminate and explore: when we discover we are holidaying and enjoying ourselves on a site of genocide how can we respond? What can we do, if anything? What should we do, if anything? What do we do, if anything? How is the past implicated in the present? And, more obliquely, how is the present implicated in the past?

But, as a creative response to this matrix of problems, I do not think this piece really worked. And, in this I am somewhat alone, there is wide consensus that this is an excellent work of theatre. But it is because of the general affirmitve responses directed towards the work that I feel somewhat less afraid to get a bit more critical about it.

The entire performance was built upon Vercoe’s emotional response to the situation she ends up in: “Seven Kilometres North East” of Višegrad is the site of Višegrad Spa Hotel which was the site of mass atrocity. I want to go out on a limb and claim that the piece didn’t work for me because Vercoe’s own emotional response, especially really powerful emotions like guilt and shame, were not fully explored. And conversely, the specifics of the history were somewhat elided. This is important because it this piece attempts to link up the history of the place she visits with Vercoe’s emotional response to discovering that history. As a result, I read the central narrative outcome of the performance itself as a somewhat reductive substitution of the performer’s guilt at enjoying herself in Višegrad, for moral outrage at what happened. This emotional sleight of hand undoubtedly unlocks the personal paralysis caused by guilt, but what does it leaves us with? A feeling? An emotion? Or a rhetorical question: “why do people rape and kill each other?” Moral outrage doesn’t communicate the complexity of the problem the performer was trying to articulate. And, I would argue, it likewise does not get traction on her role, if any, within it.

The list of questions I traced above above seem pertinent here, in such a situation what can we do? what do we want to do? what should we do? and what do we do? are all different dimensions of a response, and, although the questions look very similar, I reckon real answers are likely to look very different. For instance, we can try and find the people responsible and bring them to justice, but maybe we want to go have a beer and stare at the river. For me, Seven Kilometres North East tried to pretend that what we can, should, want to and do do in a situation like this are the same, and, I felt that the performance was didactic in  that in the end it forced me to feel that way too.

Having said this, the emotional king hit of the ending (and I felt it to be sure), certainly made me think through why I was somewhat disinterested in the travelogue section of the piece and why I ended up with no real particular detail about what did happen in the past, but why I felt sad for both Vercoe and the women who were raped and murdered in the hotel. The piece was forced me to feel what she felt. And in this the piece is incredibly successful, which is a real achievement. But to really entangle the personal and the historical, a more rigorous excavation of the personal and the historical than what was undertaken by Seven Kilometres North East.

Still, it’s taken a while for me to articulate all this, so it is not a superficial piece. It is doing complex things, but from my point of view I would like them done differently. In closing, regardless of what I think, SKNE definitely worth a look.

Seven Kilometres North East is on at the Old Fitz until Saturday 16th October. Tickets available at rocksurfers.org

ANOTHER SPECIES ENTIRELY: Friends with Deficits

Well, in comparison to Seven Kilometres North East, Another Species Entirely really was really another species entirely. 30 minutes of strange things being done with fruit, vegetables, wine and locks of hair. Friends with Deficits are an emerging performance collective who want to perform together, according to their program, ‘until the grow old and wrinkly’. And I hope they do, I’d really like to see where their work ends up. This particular piece, which I assume is unfinished, defies clear description. It seems to be about friendship and intimacy, drinking wine and being cantankerous. I would claim there was a radical feminist sensibility locked deep within the piece, but perhaps I like to think everything does, and certainly I couldn’t claim to know precisely the nature of this collective’s sensibility anyway. It was non-narrative, it involved hair and white stockings and it ended abruptly, with the audience not knowing it was done until one performer, in a gesture too natural to be scripted, came out from under a sheet and said “we were going to wait until you were all gone, but I’m getting hot under here”.

The Late Sessions at the Fitz, I know from having worked there, is all about new work getting air time in order to develop further. So, to conclude this woefully inadequate reflection on Another Species Entirely, my suggestions are that 1) someone needs to put the pineapple down their stockings, everyone I spoke to was waiting for it, and 2) the show needs to be longer, we all thought it was over but we all hoped it wasn’t. I’m gonna stay tuned for the next installment.

Another Species Entirely was only on for two nights. They have another gig coming up at Art and About on October 21. Details on Facebook

TRANSPORTI had actually been around the WORLD on Sunday. I went on the “Keep it Wheel” bike ride and VegPledge for the 350.org global action day. Keep it Wheel was a well organised bikeride that was basically designed to reassure shop owners that “cyclists are consumers too”, in response to the panicked business owners who instigated class action suit against City of Sydney for damages brought about by its major bike lane project. VegPledge was a picnic in centennial park where we all posed for the camera and didn’t eat meat. Two really cool events. So, I rode from Newtown to Surry Hills to Pyrmont to Centennial Park to Woolloomooloo to Newtown. And, while I won’t describe the route in gory detail, it was easy and fun!

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