Critical Stages’ Come to Where I Am is illuminating the potential of performance online, says Robert Reid
With its remit to take theatre to “enable regional communities to have the same access to high quality theatre as metropolitan audiences”, it’s no surprise that Critical Stages Touring is ahead of the curve in using the internet as a stage to bring together artists and audiences from all over the country, reaching out to those of us who can’t get to the citybound palaces of performance.
Come To Where I Am is an international offshoot of Come to Where I’m From. This is a project begun in 2010 by the UK based company Paines Plough, in which playwrights from around the country wrote and performed short pieces about their home towns. The company described it as “a playwright’s guide to Great Britain.”
Come to Where I Am is a sequel project, of sorts, in reaction to the shut down of the theatres and the touring networks in the wake of Covid-19. So far the international arms of the project only seems to include Australia, which feels a little uncomfortably colonial; especially as it’s described on the Paines Plough site as being “in partnership with theatres across the UK”. I’m sure it’s just an oversight. Still, maybe this could have been addressed by week three?
The Australian leg of the project is three weeks in so (Monique Grbec reviewed Volume Two for Witness). Volume Three begins with an introduction from Chris Bendall of Critical Stages and a brief welcome from the Paines Plough joint artistic directors, Katie Posner and Charlotte Bennett. This is followed by title cards that include an acknowledgement of the pandemic-closed theatres and the subsequent loss of work for writers, an exhortation to donate to the project and an Acknowledgement of Country.
Underneath these simple screens plays a familiar soundscape. It takes me a second to recognise it, because it’s been so long since I heard it: it’s the sound of an auditorium before a show, the noise of an audience coming together and finding their seats, the rustle of anticipation augmented by some faint notes from a synthesizer. It creates an immediate atmosphere of expectation. It’s simple and subtle, but an engaging touch.
The first work is Aunty Verna, written by Jon Bennett from South Australia. Bennett introduces the piece from his home, and the paintings of David Bowie and Freddie Mercury behind him keep catching my attention as he talks about the South Australian towns of Mallala, Balaklava and Pinary, his family and his travels around the world as a performer. The dead seventies rockers contrast with the stories of his deeply serious and religious upbringing in the small towns, though less so with the stories of his siblings’ drug use.
The scene cuts to an outside view of the farm on which he grew up. He walks through the green fields dressed in casual blacks with a thin black tie, telling us how he grew up here, pointing out places where the events of his young life occurred. He begins with the milking shed and the barn where he lost his virginity. Rusting vehicles, cars and utes, along with stacks of corrugated iron litter the background. There are tin sheds are in the distance, and a cow off screen moos loudly, interrupting him.
The camera follows him in a single continuous shot, swinging around as he gestures to the landscape, all green and grey and windy. The all-black ensemble and the drab day keep reminding me of funerals I’ve been to.
He segues into a story of how the children were all given animals on the farm to name and care for until market day. He wonders if his father didn’t realise the effect that this would have on a seven year old’s brain; but as soon as his story begins I can’t help but think that his father must have known exactly what he was doing. Death is much closer on the land; death is a part of the routine, and perhaps the sooner one is acclimatised to it, the better. The reality of it is driven home later that evening, Bennet tells us, as he describes sitting at the dinner table eating pork chops, gesturing to the house where it happened, where his father explained, waving a chop at him, that this could be his pet pig, Meaghan, that had gone to market that day. The realities of death are harsh, sure, but how necessary is this cruelty? Is it born of the callousness of dealing with death, as a farmer, as a priest, that drives the compassion from this moment?
The stories of dying loved animals keep coming. Jack the dog, Bennett’s pet replacement for Meaghan, dies a year later, followed by a calf, the Aunty Verna of the title, and a duck, called Duck-Duck. The story shifts into a detailed description of finding a springy patch of dirt that acts like a trampoline, out the back of the milking shed, where the young Bennett joyfully jumps and launches himself over and over into the air, and the sense of joy in his flight creates a sinking feeling in my stomach. All the death, all the dead animals, tells me nothing good can come from this joy. I’m not wrong, as the ground gives way and he falls into a pit of acrid muck, which of course, is the remains of Aunty Verna, who had died a few days earlier and been buried there by his father.
The callousness returns as he’s hosed off and taken to the Under 10s football game he’s scheduled to play that day, where the smells and the remaining bits of dead cow stuck to him make him triumphant on the field.
Bennett’s work is followed by Margaret Davis, who briefly introduces us to herself from her bright home in NSW. Behind her I notice a doll’s house on the window sill, flowers and small skull, maybe from a bird, cat or rodent. A memento mori. More death. Perhaps I’m just in the mood to notice it after the first work.
Davis’ piece, Balancing on the Edge, begins with her speaking in voiceover about her morning walk through the national park with her dog, as we watch vision of her doing exactly that. Scrubby, thin trees bunched thickly together line the two dirt paths that converge in the shot, as Davis and her brown dog pass the camera. This cuts to another angle – more green grass among the grey brown trees – and then closeups of burnt, black tree trunks, as Davis describes the air during a bushfire.
We return to a closeup of Davis back in her home, talking directly to the camera, describing the mountain plateau where her community lives. Images of her sitting and looking out over the stunning landscape of the Blue Mountains, the sweeping vista of dense bush and rugged rock faces, are accompanied by her explanation of the waves of European invasion of this land, re-treading the stories of convict transportation, expeditions of intrepid Brits learning to conquer the landscape from the local Indigenous people, and the modern recolonization of these lands by white suburbanites making a tree change.
Davis presents herself as one of the “leftie brigade” who are more interested in preservation than development, artists and academics “refugees from the city” denigrated by the locals who would prefer to build and clear. It’s a classic baby boomer story of well-meaning, well-wishing, comfortably retired Australians, settling into their white privilege and trying to reconcile it with their white guilt. This pivots into scenes of this year’s bushfires, and a reflection on the pandemic and the lockdown. Am I imagining the resentment as Davis describes the sense of displacement in her own home from government warnings about the dangers of the disease for the older people and those with underlying pre-existing conditions? Is the irony of her feeling of displacement too much at odds with the actual displacement of the First Peoples of this country? There’s also a jarring shift in pronoun here, as the story goes suddenly from I to She.
This reflection on her situation in the lockdown carries into a growing anxiety about being isolated from her community, of being alone in the house with only her dog, of being forgotten, maybe to succumb to the disease and lie undiscovered for days or weeks. It becomes a pretty horrific imagining of her beloved dog turning to a wild animal and gnawing on her dead body to survive. Meanwhile, little moments in the text keep peeking out, little resentments at the imposition of social distancing, that makes me wonder whether she accepts the need for these precautions or if there’s a hint of too much time reading spurious articles about the so called plandemic. Is this why there’s that shift of pronoun, from I to she? Is she distancing herself from these ideas? Trying to demonstrate them without owning them? “Bugger the need for human connection,” indeed.
Who is this she? Who is this I? It’s not clear. The stories of bushfires return with the principal pronoun, and then it’s back to “she” again. It doesn’t help that the framing of the video is so focused on Davis’ face, following her around the landscape she describes. The structure undermines the sense of it, I think, ranging over various thoughts that seem more like notes for a work than a complete work itself.
Interval follows and Bendall returns to encourage the audience to comment, sharing where they’re watching from. Chyrons appear on screen below him with Facebook profile shots and comments doing exactly that. It’s a decent attempt at creating a sense of the distributed audience coming together in the same digital space. I’m not sure that it feels the same as a theatre foyer at interval, but it is a nice reminder that there are a lot of us here.
Samah Sabawi’s Ngar-go’s Moroccan Soup Bar comes next. Sabawi introduces us to herself and her work from a what looks like a highrise apartment in Melbourne: there are candles and plates behind her on shelves, and we see the balconies of other buildings through the windows, cast with that bright grey Melbourne light. Her story, she tells us, comes from events in June in between the Victorian lockdowns.
Sabawi speaks directly to camera from the same spot at a slightly slanted angle. The sound is tortured in that specific Zoom bandwidth poor laptop microphone way, tinny and stretched. She describes getting ready to go out, to see people once again, because the Victorian restrictions have eased. She laughs with a kind of fragility that seems born of being kept inside for too long, being kept from her friends, from agitating to change the world over “crispy fried zucchini”.
The Moroccan Soup Bar is something of a Melbourne landmark, not far from where The Store Room used to be in North Fitzroy. It’s one of those restaurants that regularly turns up on Must Eat and How You Know You’re a Melbournian Lists in The Broadsheet. Sabawi describes it as a hotbed for important conversations about favourite left-leaning issues, what to do about Indigenous rights, women’s rights, climate change, Islamophobia, homophobia. “That’s Melbourne for you, right?” she says. Well, yes, that’s a Melbourne. For some of us.
Sabawi tells us about the owner, Hana, and her decisions to shut the restaurant two weeks before the state went into shutdown. Hana’s staff are “mostly hijab-wearing women” that Hana hires regardless of their training and experience to give them the tools and the opportunity to work towards their independence. She’s shut her restaurant down early, because she fears that if any of her staff become infected and have to go to hospital, they won’t be prioritised as patients; that if the doctors have to make the same kind of choices they were making in Italy six months before, about who receives treatment and who doesn’t – essentially who lives and dies – she fears that these women won’t be among the chosen. It’s a story of survival and community.
Sabawi’s journey to the Soup Bar is a by now familiar one of eerily empty streets and closed shops. The entry to the soup bar is well known for having a line of patrons down the street waiting to get in and Sabawi describes it as teming with diversity, which she mostly describes as fashion choices: young men with beards, women in cardigans or elegant dresses, dreadlocks and straight hair, high heels and runners. I wonder, does this really reflect the diversity she’s describing? Aside from the conversing hijabs and crosses (which I’m assuming are meant to be crucifixes), it doesn’t sound all that diverse to me.
Sabawi concludes with the revelation that the Moroccan Soup bar won’t reopen after the lockdown which, if true, is a tragedy. One of hundreds, maybe thousands, around the city, around the country. All because the landlord, like a lot of landlords this year, refused to cut Hana a deal to keep the restaurant there. I think about the people complaining about the unfairness of the lockdowns, those “protesting” their loss of freedom because of the pandemic and calling for the resignation of “Dictator Dan”. The same selfish impulse of capitalism, which is driving the haves and have-nots ever further apart.
Finally Kathryn Ash from Queensland introduces herself with what I think might be a green-screened background of the tropical rainforests of the Far North. The lighting on Ash and the sound makes me think she’s in a studio with this forestry added in later, but I can’t be sure of that. She defends her work, The Brink, before we’ve even seen it, fearing it might be seen as critical, and saying that at times like these it’s important to be critical, to consider what might come after. “If there is an after”, she concludes ominously.
When the piece begins, she’s definitely sitting in that rainforest. A more even light source falls across her bright yellow blouse and the trees and palms behind her. She begins by telling us that people around her are dismissive of the pandemic. “Just a fuss over the flu,” she parrots back at the camera, and you can already sense frustration in her voice. She describes the tourism brochure that declares the rainforest here is the oldest and one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
Cairns, she tells us, is a place of brisk commerce and has been for 30 years. A place that trades in precious things, reef and rainforest. Her poetic use of language, rhythm and onomatopoeia are immediately engrossing, as is her mercurial skipping between her own voice and the harsh Australian accent she takes on to imitate her neighbours and townsfolk. Her performance of her words almost has a beat poet quality to it. The passion in her is already undeniable.
As she stops, to sit with the lockdown, the quieted industry, the noises of the rainforest around her become apparent. A glorious symphony of bird song is whistling and calling all around her as she leans in to the camera to tell us to just listen.
She paints a detailed picture of her Cairns as a shutdown tourist town, memorably describing it as “becalmed in Covid waters”. In performance, Ash is completely in and of her world; her experience of life in the Far North blows and breathes through her voice. Critical, yes, but without judgement, or perhaps, without pre-judgement. It is what it is and that’s all, her work says. Not an ideal of what it should or could be, or what she thought it might be: observation and description in a pure form.
Cairns is shut not because of a lockdown but because no one can travel anymore. Borders closed here in the south empties out the tourism trade and all its associated industries.
Her dogs have terrific names, Fleaboy and Budster. She says they are resentful that she is at home all the time now, but also wonders if they recognise that something is amiss, if they are confused not to hear the vibration of the tourist industry, the trains and plains and commerce. Hearing instead the noises of the landscape that are usually drowned out by humans.
Her stumbles over the occasional word, particularly anthropogenic, don’t get in the way of the pattern and rhythm of her writing; they just make it seem more urgent, more recognisable, more real.
She’s excellent. More of Kathryn Ash, please.
Her reading comes to a crescendo accompanied by the agitated squawking of a bird. She smiles wryly at it as they both come to the conclusion of their song together, and wonders, will we acknowledge the change that all of this – disease, lockdown and reaction – has wrought in us.
Volume Three of Come to Where I am is a mostly solid affair with some deep pockets of darkness and a pressing sense of life under lockdown around the country. It’s not surprising, I suppose, that so much of it is focused on the present virus, since it suffuses every element of what once felt like normal life. Even given its few minor flaws, it’s a commendable project, and underlines what I think are the great potentials of the internet as a performance space. Seeing the work of writer and performers from far flung places across this massive country – work I’d never get to see in the normal run of things – really must be one of the things we carry forward with us out of the lowering gloom of this year.
Come to Where I Am – VolumeThree. Written and performed by Jon Bennett, Margaret Davis, Samah Sabawi and Kathryn Ash, presented online by Critical Stages Touring and Paines Plough. Online at Critical Stages.