March 15, 2000

Big hArt Works

Big hArt Works
Director: Scott Rankin

Care Park, Moore Street
Adelaide until 17 March

The Theft of Sita

Director : Nigel Jamieson, Music: Paul Grabowsky and I Wayan Gde Yudane, Puppetry: I Made Sidia and Peter Wilson, Design: Julian Crouch and Reg Mombassa

Botanic Park, Adelaide
until 17 March.

The cavernous warehouse venue is lit up with activity. Painting easels surround the walls, a dozen young people hold up their portraits for viewing, a large expanse of red earth is being bricked over with pavers, one kid is running on the spot, another is sitting for artist Robert Hannaford, tribal dancers mingle with young Chinese performers. A crew shoots live footage and sound. Techno beats pour through speakers. Someone steps forward to a microphone. Definition of a person, of work, of apathy, of running.

Director Scott Rankin, complete with headset and clipboard, barks out cues with abstract titles- Presentation of a Visual Image, Structural Device A. On various screens clips of young people describe experiences of neglect, abuse, isolation and loss.A young woman etches black lines into her face to let the pain out. In one of many short film narratives, a young man repeats the abusive relationship patterns of his father.

This is Big hArt Works, a public report of an eighteen month process of consultation with one thousand young people from twelve communities in rural and regional Australia. It is a compelling experience both for its emotional directness and its quality of presentation. A number of high profile artists contribute- Roger Woodward narrates a story and plays some tinny piano, actor Kerry Armstrong reads for a screen test, even Robyn Archer arrives by fast car for some quick vocals. But these cameos are deliberately ironic and self-deprecating, highlighting the painfully experienced truth of the young performers.

Often community theatre has to trade craft for sincerity and short circuits social urgency into harangue. What is distinctive in Big hArt Works is Rankin’s skill in framing the understatement and quiet dignity of these emotionally articulate young people. As the company boldly says, Big hArt Works is a statement not a title. And they are right. The performers have gained from this project. And so have we. Not so much because we have been taught, but because it makes us want to learn.

The Theft of Sita is also a collaboration, between Australian and Indonesian artists- and conceived at a time when politically the two societies have been estranged. Derived from the Sanskrit epic, the Ramayana, the story of Sita tells how the wife of King Rama is abducted by the demon Rawanna and held in the city of Lanka before being rescued by Rama and his faithful followers.

To this story, director Nigel Jamieson has not only grafted extensive current political and social reference, he has taken the Indonesian shadow play techniques of the Wayan Kulit and added designs from Mambo artist Reg Mombassa, while the traditional gamelan group has been augmented by members and associates of Paul Grabowsky’s impro ensemble the Australian Art Orchestra.

The marriage of styles is intriguing and often delightful. The delicate detailing of traditional puppets is contrasted by Mombassa’s boisterous, farting creations while the dexeterous Indonesian and Australian dalang/puppeteers merge ancient clowns like Twalen and Merdah with cartoon gags of the likes of Ren and Stimpy.

Vocalist Shelley Scown beautifully echoes the suling flute lines and the combined ensemble creates both harmony -and cacophony, to match the many punch-ups and dangers that Sita’s rescuers face as the forest is hacked down to make Australian toilet paper, cultivation is disrupted by adventure tourism and the cities become the corrupt domain of Rawanna.

There is clever satire here – the demon in his stretch limo and Sita being sold on the stock exchange, for instance. But the narrative, despite inventive screen projections and the gusto of the performances, wears thin as the social and political comment falls into repetitive denunciation. The Wayan Kulit has a narrative which enables it to meander, but in The Theft of Sita, Nigel Jamieson has created something much more hyperactive and, to work best, it needs to steal past more briskly.
The Australian, Arts on Friday, March, 2000.

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