Once Under a Sky

Two women, two raincoats, a bucket, some puddles, the desert and the sea.

The Newtown Theatre is a space that I’ve been to a few times, I like going there (close to home, cool foyer, friendly/unpretentious, unnaturally spongy chairs) but I’ve never liked what I’ve seen there. This is by no means a reflection upon everything that is produced in the space; but of the shamefully few things that I have seen there, I have not been inspired to return in a hurry. Once Under a Sky comes some way to changing my tune about this.

Seasoned physical theatre performers Freya Sant and Kate Sherman, teamed up with director Michael Pigott and devised the work Once Under a Sky. It is a story about two fisherwomen, and this story is told in the time it takes to find a good fishing spot. But it is much more than that. It is a personal history. It is a story of two outsiders. It is a story about co-dependence and love, in ways similar to A Tiny Chorus. It is dream-like: space and time seem stable, but are not. In all this, Once Under a Sky has the potential to be an amazing adventure. But, I don’t think it is a finished work yet.

To reflect honestly upon my experience: this was a Fringe production, and I really felt the limitations of the Fringe format when I saw this show. Some performances are like Tents, easy to put up and down, ideal for the Fringe. Others are not. I think Once Under a Sky looks like a Tent but, to extend this terrible analogy, it is actually more like a Kit Home: more difficult to construct and more permanent than you might think. I’m sure the performers are aware of this. It is a simple story, but I wanted less simple lighting. Also, I was not sure if there needed to be a set, but I am also not sure if the space should be black. I wished the sound provided more of something … but it’s not really my place to suggest what that “something” is. But if I was in the business of suggesting, I would say I also loved the points at which action would be paused and a narrator would come and describe the history, especially when it placed these two girls/women in a more concrete social context. But this didn’t happen very often. I felt the overall story could benefit from a more carefully constructed metanarrative. In short, I wanted more from this world under the sky than this particular incarnation of Once Under a Sky could give me.

Having said this, it was amazing how much of the story did actually work in the Fringe (as a Tent!) without all the benefits of a full production (a Kit Home). The performers really know how to infuse a blank space with meaning. They played absurdly with scale (who knew a spit ball and the sea could have the same function?), they created remarkably labour-intensive props for single moments (a person-sized, presumably hand-knitted, bag!), and created a meaningful and complex relationship between the two characters who at times seemed almost like strangers and at other times the seemed almost like lovers. In short: if the Fringe Production was designed as a tester to see if it should be developed further, I’d say the answer to that is unequivocally “yes”.

TRANSPORT: I live shamefully close to The Newtown Theatre, relative to the amount of times i’ve attended the space. Basically, I rode to The Hub. 30 seconds from my house. And rode down King St for about 1.5 minutes. Stopping at the Pastizzi Cafe for Pastizzi (don’t forget to order their special tomato sauce with your Pastizzi) for 5 minutes. Then rode on to the Newtown Theatre. 1 minute. The journey from door to door, including an eat-in-dinner 8 minutes. As I have never said before, but I will say it again, two wheels are much better than none.

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The upside down penis

Go bring the rabble, / O’er whom I give thee power, here to this place – Prospero (to Ariel), The Tempest, Act IV, scene one

THE RABBLE have been brought to CarriageWorks to present Cageling. Cageling is a physical exploration of the repression of grief and desire, set in an enclosed box with a perspex wall facing the audience, two seamless white walls on the sides, and a wall with a high window at the rear. When you enter the space, you are met with a cast of five. They are all in the box, wearing floor-length, black, Victorian, gothic dresses and black ballet slippers. They are lit with fluorescent lights, and arranged in an unsettling tableau. They are there as if waiting for the audience, but very little happens for the first fifteen minutes. Cageling is designed to leave you outside, distanced from the action inside this home, and it takes effort on the part of the audience to find a way into this private world. This is almost in complete contrast to the the last thing I saw in Bay 20, Matt Prest and Claire Britton’s Hole in the Wall in which you are literally invited inside the home. But, although you are left outside Cageling’s cage, if you are actively willing to find a way inside, you’ll be rewarded.

THE RABBLE are not controlled by Prospero, or Shakespeare for that matter, but they are controlled by another formidable magician, Fredericio Garcia Lorca. Cageling’s urtext is Lorca’s play The House of Bernada Alba, a drama about a recently widowed mother, who controls her grief by dominating her children. This play is “smashed open” by THE RABBLE, and rearranged through the use of ballet, contemporary dance and hymn, and enhanced by stories from Ovid, thereby exposing the unconscious, affective underbelly of the Lorca’s text. But, we keep the mother and daughters and Dan Schlusser is terrifyingly good as Mother Alba.

Mother’s rules are no weeping and no secrets. A tension is established at the outset of the work between desire and action; if you do not act, you do not desire, and you do not grieve, if you do not cry. The flawed theory, of course, is that grief and desire will disappear if they can’t find expression, therefore as long as order is kept, tears are avoided, hierarchies are respected and instructions are followed everything will be OK. But, everything is clearly not OK. Within this world the only actions Mother allows are carefully choreographed: the poised movements of ballet and the perfectly harmonised hymn. Cageling dramatises the Daughters/sons’ attempts to break free from these rules, and the Mother/father’s attempt to reinstate them. And, I use the word “dramatises” with all its conventional import in spite of the lack of the dramatic text. And I say Daughter/son, Mother/father because gender difference necessarily unclear because the work is about women without men, but who have internalised the patriarchal structure. (Actually, Women without Men by Shirin Neshat that played in the recent Sydney Film Festival, has some interesting affinities with Cageling)

There are so many dimensions to this performance, and this is because THE RABBLE put to use all the tools available to the performing artist–speech, song, silence, movement, tableau, dance, costume, gesture, vocal tone, makeup, properties, set,  lighting, sound–THE RABBLE treat each aspect of the artform with equivalent importance, no element dominates, each device in turn contributing to Cageling’s emotional and physical assault.

Cageling is extraordinary, it deserves much more time that I can give it here to unfold the dark matter that is explored in the white box. Cageling requires your active attention, I think the audience are given many ways in; the sound design, dance lighting and speech all had a refrain. If you miss those clues or willingly resist the offers, you might be literally left out in the cold. But, I love difficult theatre, I like being made to work to find meaning, I love work where meaning keeps emerging for days later and there are too many threads to possibly consolidate in one short review. For example, I didn’t even get mention the headstand and the upside down penis, so, perhaps the upside down penis can be your reward if you are willing to involve yourself in Cageling.

Cageling plays at CarriageWorks until July 3

This is an unofficial review of the Preview Performance on June 24.

TRANSPORT:

I managed to get back on my bike again yesterday. The rain abated. I rode from UNSW to CarriageWorks, the ride is so easy. Bike paths almost all the way along Anzac Parade, and I get to go along one of my favourite paths in Sydney–a cresent moon shaped path that cuts between Cleveland st and South Dowling–then down Redfern St, past Redfern Station, left onto Little Eveleigh St which turns into Wilson, and bam, you’re at Carriageworks. I go the slow way, there is a quicker way through the industrial estates of Alexandria, but I like the slower pace, mostly off the road.