Branch Nebula’s High Performance Packing Tape pushes cheap material – and Robert Reid’s patience – to the limits
Branch Nebula are a physical theatre and live art company renowned for their rethinking of urban spaces and the limits of physical performance. The work they present at this year’s Adelaide Festival, High Performance Packing Tape, has been touring since 2018 and has played at Carriageworks, The Sydney Opera House and Arts House in Melbourne, among others. For a work that promises to push “cheap materials to their breaking point” and showcase “imminent physical demise [which leads] to horrific scenarios”, the outcome is remarkably underwhelming.
The trouble with reviewing circus is that after the aesthetics have been appreciated and dealt with, all that is left is a series of feats and stunts. There’s no doubting the skill or strength of the performer (Skye Gellmann) on display here – particularly in the last quarter, which they perform naked with their rope-like muscles coiling around their legs, arms and torso. I certainly couldn’t do any of these things, not even a little. However, if there’s not much more than tricks, then one circus becomes much like any other.
High Performance Packing Tape, developed by Lee Wilson, Skye Gellmann, Timothy Ohl, Mirabelle Wouters, Mickie Quick and Phil Downing, is billed as physical theatre but there’s very little theatre in evidence here. It might just as accurately have been called “Things That Seemed Like Good Ideas in Development.” It’s about as surprising as an average episode of Mythbusters and nowhere near as entertaining. Am I supposed to be impressed by the tensile strength of the packing tape? I’ve seen Jamie and Adam build a bridge out of the same stuff and use it to walk across an empty 50-foot deep pool. I’ve watched them rappel down a cliffside with it, build a raft out of it that does a decent job of sailing, and turn it into a serviceable parachute.
Although these materials seem to be fragile and unreliable, they’re designed to carry industrial weights and withstand a great deal of pressure. On its own, a single length of packing tape can bear about 22 pounds. Each layer and wrap of tape increases the strength of the whole exponentially. The average cardboard box can reasonably handle 50 pounds of pressure.
Once the anxiety that comes from thinking these everyday objects must be flimsy and dangerous is removed, High Performance Packing Tape becomes just another highwire and balancing act, and a slow one at that. I’d estimate fully two thirds of the hour is watching Gellmann set up the tricks.
When we enter all the props of the show are scattered around the stage. Cardboard boxes are stacked at the back, bracing poles lay on the ground tethered to heavy container drums, and Gellmann is lying on their back amid them all, blowing up a massive balloon. As the lights go down they blow it up faster and harder. The contact mic attached to it is a giveaway that they’re going to blow it up until it explodes, which they do, and it reverberates with a massive amplified bang that draws a completely understandable exclamation of “Jesus” from someone in the audience behind me.
They begin by building a tower out of the largest three boxes, probably three metres tall. They carry the stack across the stage and back again, only to drop it over their head and knock down all the other boxes arranged behind them. They use these boxes to build another tower and climb to the top of it in a version of the familiar chair stack. I wonder if the boxes might be reinforced to hold their weight, but when they collapse, we see that they are empty. The chair stack is repeated a little later, this time using plastic chairs interlayered with blown up balloons. Gellman sits on top of these chairs and bounces up and down until the balloons burst, bringing them to the ground.
We watch them set up a slackline using the packing tape. It takes forever, crossing laboriously back and forth, balancing on plastic chairs, to wrap three rolls of tape into a wire and ratchet the poles into place. I gather this is intended to build up tension in the audience. We’re meant to watch in disbelief, I suppose, thinking “surely they’re not going to expect that to take their weight”. If so, then it’s somewhat undermined by the title of the show, though I guess it does what it says on the tin.
At one point Gellman dons a suit of bubble wrap and a milkcrate that suggests a diving helmet or a Faraday cage. They stretch a metal tape measure out to its full length. For a moment, I think they’re going to use this as a tight rope next and I’m briefly interested. That’s something I haven’t seen before and I don’t know if it will work. Surely the sharp edges of the tape would at the very least cut their feet up? But no, instead they whip it around like a noisy Olympic ribbon dancer. No amount of strobe lighting is going to make it any less like the first idea you’d think of when playing around with this object.
They use a boxcutter to cut free from the plastic cocoons, and this makes for a sudden plummet through the space to the floor. The shock draws worried and impressed gasps from the audience, and there is some danger involved as they work without a net or a safety cable for much of the show. What little protection they have is made of cardboard boxes and blow up yoga balls held together by a net. Not the softest landing pads, I’ll admit.
There are moments of beauty. The light through the plastic cocoon as they hang above the stage is striking. The fluidity of movement as they bounce up and down while strapped into jumbo rubber bands hanging from the packing tape tight rope has a lissom quality. The graceful swings through the air after they cut free of their cocoon are contorted and balletic.
The soundscape (Phil Dowling) is by turns rhythmical and noisy. It’s built mostly out of the noise of packing tape being pulled out and the amplified creaks and straining of the materials under stress provokes an instinctive anxiety, no matter how safe they are.
What little narrative there is might be that of a tradie working for a removals company driven mad by the repetitiveness of their work, or perhaps a divorced and lonely husband surrounded by the last few boxes of what used to be a home. But I’m doing that work. There’s nothing in the performance to really suggest any of that. Just the moving boxes, packing tape and the fact that Gellman is wearing khaki shorts, a dun brown t-shirt and tan shoes that suggest dusty Blundstones. There’s so much time between the stunts that it leaves me plenty of time to look intensely at every detail, mining it to find any kind of narrative that isn’t there. Narrative, like nature, abhors a vacuum, after all.
We know the show is almost over when all the props have been used. For a show that is described as one in which “safety and wellbeing are de-prioritised in new and liberating ways”, I’m left with a distinct sense that this has been little more than an intriguing premise and a catchy title.
High Performance Packing Tape, by collaborating artists Lee Wilson, Mickie Quick, Mirabelle Wouters, Phil Downing and Antek Marciniec. Presented by Branch Nebula at the Main Theatre, AC Arts as part of the Adelaide Festival.
Further reading: Alison Croggon on High Performance Packing Tape in Melbourne.