July 01, 1987

Moving but difficult targets

Metamorphosis and Bawky Play, Red Shed Company
ABC, Patch Theatre Company
Soft Targets, Troupe

The Red Shed Company continues to provide distinctive and committed theatre as indicated by their most recent double bill – Bawky Play by David Carlin and an adaptation of an adaptation of Berkoff’s Kafka’s Metamorphosis.

The story of Gregor Samsa, bureaucratic functionary, who wakes up to find he has become a giant insect is more than seventy years old. But Kafka’s nightmare seems only to increase in intensity.

Director Curtis Weiss keeps Gregor and his tentacles out of the acting area although musician Debra Muerer provides us with a vivid enough array of noises off for us to have a fair idea why the family finds mealtimes so disagreeable. On the other we also see how disagreeable families themselves are as Weiss’s production draws in Oedipal conflicts and anti-patriarchal satire.

Gregor is both victim and aggressor as he elicits ambivalent response from father, mother and sister. Rejuvenated by his son’s incapacity, the father resumes his roosterish ascendancy over the family while the sister’s brief glimmerings of liberty are submerged again as she conspires with her parents’ plans for an advantageous marriage.

The RSC has succeeded in presenting bold theatrical images in this production, from the sinister Chief Clerk in face stocking and black vinyl inflatable suit fed by a dark umbilicus of puffing air, to the masonic lodgers shuffling in harmony with giant eyeball masks over their heads, to Greta’s preposterous birdcage bridal veil. Weiss refracts his production through film sequences within the action and rows of mirrors around the perimeter of the stage. Cupboards disgorge huge numbers of apples which , as well as providing nourishment for Gregor’s belching appetite, litter the stage as an odd correlative for the psychological clutter and impossible knowledge that emotions and events have become.

Dressed in clownish militaria, Nick Gill gives a bitterly comic performance as the father barking pomposities at every turn. Katy Morris and Barbara Learmonth, as Greta and the mother, appease and approve the male power play continually being enacted.

In its expressionistic conception and performance, Metamorphosis shows Weiss to be an inventive and witty director while Chris Nizamis and Debra Muerer provide a memorable ‘soundtrack’ for an uneven but engrossing production.

David Carlin wrote his Bawky Play as part of his honours degree in Drama at Flinders University and it is further indication of his theatrical talents. Mr Bawky is an imaginary friend, intimate of Michael a small boy growing up with his mother, brother and sister. Carlin’s play explores the compensatory impulses in a child growing up without a father and is edgily accurate in its account of childhood anxiety and sibling barbarism. At times whimsical in its neat observations of the logic of children’s imaginative life, the play has distinctly menacing undercurrents.

As Michael, Shane McNeil gives a sensitive performance, finding a convincing combination of artless self-consciousness and childlike conviction . Carlin’s play reminds us that childhood is fraught with emotional danger and families can cause real harm. The onset of sexual awareness and the constant betrayals of trust between children and between children and adults are compellingly presented.

The closing scene, for example, where Michael, having buried Mr Bawky in the garden, finds that the family continually want to exhume him, is particularly chilling. This is risky theatre and it is good to see it paying off as the RSC chalk up another success.

Patch Theatre Company has been on the road taking ABC to upper primary and lower secondary school students. ABC, another work from the prolific David Holman, recounts the story of four Nicaraguan women after the rise of the Sandinistas. In particular it focuses on the crusade by which the young Brigadistas, girls often as young as nine years old, reduced the illiteracy rate among the rural poor from 54% to less than 13%.

ABC concentrates on three village women, Violetta, Mercedes and Rosa and their young teacher, Lea. With effortless clarity, Holman identifies the personal histories of each as indicative of the larger history of Nicaragua. Violetta learns that her daughter has been killed in reprisals against the Brigadistas; Mercedes must choose between vengeance, and thus a perpetuation of old ways, and making enough peace with the past to proceed to a new future; and Rosa, a carefree girl, learns the political realities of the world around her.

Christine Anketel’s production has, necessarily, been designed for the nomadic life of school performances but it seemed somewhat tentative in the Festival Centre Space. Patch have done well to select a work as politically direct as ABC for schools touring. But Holman’s play has theatrical features calculated to offset the didacticism in the writing which Christine Anketel could have exploited more. Natasha Moszenin’s music is strongly rhythmic, but at times too fiercely martial to succeed. Her programme notes refer to wanting to ‘create another voice’ in the play, but the hortatory acting style from Gwenda Helsham, as Violetta, and Joanne Cooper , as Mercedes, only compounds the hectoring effect of the production.

Anna Linarello, however, takes full opportunity of Holman’s beguiling portrait of Rosa – enthusiastic, earnest, dizzy, but always the child of the new order. When each woman chooses a word to carry in the Festival procession, Violetta uses ‘Freedom’, Mercedes ‘Justice’, and Rosa chooses a ‘Parrot’. It is a witty variant on Holman’s part and it provides an anecdote which nicely underlines the meanings of the play. More could have been made of Rosa liberating the caged parrots; whether the last ungainly bird will fly or not is a metaphor for Rosa and Nicaragua itself and ye t the theatrical moment is stifled in this production. Nevertheless, Anna Linarello gives a shrewd and pleasing performance and it is to be hoped that she will grace further Patch productions.

In staging the Griffin Theatre Company’s production, Soft Targets, Troupe spent time gathering material, calling public forums and adapting the play to the accelerating state of the AIDS debate . But it still looks as though events have overtaken the play itself such that its message is significantly marginalised. As the national AIDS agencies slug it out as to whether public information should be broadly based grim reaper, everybody’s-gonna-get -it campaigns, or concentrate on apparently high risk groups such as gays and needle-users , Soft Targets focuses almost exclusively on the sub-culture which produced the play – the Sydney gay scene.

This is entirely legitimate, and the play gives vivid vignettes of the personal experiences of victims, lovers, relatives and health workers. But our cubits of knowledge have not really been increased. There is no mention, for instance, of AIDS rampaging through the Third World or all those theories that it is the result of runaway germ warfare experiments by you-know-who.

Instead we meet in the Cafe Guignol with the players dressed in polymorphous satin undies, fetishistic leather and Red Cross armbands as the show cuts backwards and forwards from personal witness, AIDS hotlines, cameos of death and dying and Brechtian cabaret routines which fail to raise our spirits from the fundamentally distressing nature of the material.

There are many convincing moments, though. For instance, Jenny Castles as Thelma from Cootamundra, poleaxed by news of her son’s sexuality, his impending demise and the devotion of his lover Vincent. And Michael Fuller, neatly laconic as Denny, AIDS victim facing the fact that he is an outcast, the living dead. But the show fails to galvanise its subject matter and the best efforts of the actors cannot compensate this.

Soft Targets is a project well worth Troupe’s talents, if only that theatre generally has already lost many talented souls to this pernicious disease. But the media has not, as the programme notes assert, sensationalised and misled (although that, of course, has happened). It has overwhelmed us with the spectre of a plague within our own privileged society that has shaken us to our metaphysical boots. Soft Targets cannot compete with this general dread. It may well unwittingly persuade those who are not gay or users that they can walk safely along the other side of the road.

For these reasons, the show needs a major overhaul. Never mind the ‘ello ‘ello jokes and hyperactive panegyrics to group sex, safe or otherwise. Concentrate on the human voices that speak so resonantly, and then Soft Targets will really bowl us over.

CentreStage Australia, July, 1987, pp.16-17.

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