Kate Hunter’s Earshot – remounted last week for the Due West Arts Festival – is a darkly pleasurable delight, says Alison Croggon
Last week I went to the Due West Arts Festival at the Footscray Community Arts Centre and saw Kate Hunter’s Earshot, one of the best theatrical poems I’ve experienced. On for only two nights, it was one of those shows that reminded me why I love performance. I walked out feeling light – delighted – in the kind of untraceable, mysterious ways I associate with the best art.
Earshot premiered to enormous (and justified) acclaim at fortyfive downstairs in 2017. You’d think that, given its scrupulous achievement, it would have been solidly on the tour circuit since: it’s a minor crime that it hasn’t been. Given that it’s such a smart, nimble show, and all of me is so sluggish at the end of a particularly exhausting year, I’m not sure I’m up to discussing it. But here we go.
It’s a show that’s dense with text, both visual and aural; but, like the human voice, it’s full of air. The text is constructed from a myriad of overheard conversations, which are written down verbatim and then turned into poems that are performed by Hunter and Josephine Lange, two extremely skilled vocal artists, in a series of inventive soundscapes designed by Jem Savage. It’s often hilarious, and always sheerly enjoyable.
There are different playing areas on the stage, including two sets of vertical flexible pipes on both sides, which lead to trumpet-like devices – they look mostly like huge funnels – that are set up at intervals through the middle of the auditorium. There are also two screens on which text is projected: a large landscape-oriented screen at the back of the stage and a kind of long banner towards the front.
When the two women walk onto the set, they are dressed demurely in black, like classical musicians. They perform from scores on music stands, also like classical musicians, and move around the stage, as musicians do when they’re changing instruments, and the texts are delivered with the precision of music. In short, it’s almost a concert, but not quite: it’s one of those unclassifiable performances that sit between music, theatre and performance art.
What they’re making music from is everyday speech. The show opens with a cacophony of sound, echoed (if echo is the right word?) by its visual analogue – words in a typewriter font running into each other, interrupting each other, melding and slipping into a solid wall of text. As with those puzzles in which you’re challenged to pick out words from a block of letters, words emerge as the brain decides to make sense of them, but then they slide out of vision and vanish, as sounds vanish, leaving their afterimage in the memory.
The dialogues and monologues that follow are all wrenched out of their original context, but remain extraordinarily specific – two women talking about teaching; a woman in a Centrelink who seems to have paranoid delusions; someone discussing gardening tools (a performance hilariously obscured by the noise of machinery, so the words that emerge are suddenly double-entendred). The mis-hearings and ambient sound (“traffic noise”, “mumble”) are given the same weight as the dialogue itself. The delivery is both expressive and affectless – we become aware of how voice is modulated and changed, but because it’s always the same voices the specific contexts are transformed.
It reminded me, more than anything else, of the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s Life and Times, a durational work 12 hours long that was part of the 2013 Melbourne Festival. This was created from hours of recorded phone conversation in which a company member told the story of her life, that was transposed verbatim to a series of theatrical settings – a musical, a detective drama. Although Earshot is obviously not nearly so epic, it has a similar effect: it made me feel an increasing tenderness (and maybe even something like awe?) for the mundane details of ordinary life.
It’s not without darkness: there’s a sense of menace or ill-will beneath some of the conversations that is permitted to sit there, suspended but present. A man on holiday in Thailand is emotionally blackmailed by his friends into forgoing the solitude he desires; a woman discusses a family conflict; another man complains about his wife. This final thread becomes a horrifying abusive tirade that opens up the bleak sadism beneath an 18-year marriage.
I found myself pondering how inadequate language is as an expression of the complexities of human existence, how we pre-package our experiences into the words that are available and are then imprisoned by them. And then I’d trip over how Earshot demonstrates experience leaking through those pre-packaged words and phrases, deforming them, ripping them open. Somehow its artifice returns you to the reality of things.
The whole becomes a kind of dance between the rhythms of vernacular language and those of our own perceptions. It never stays still: it moves, sliding from one association to another, one emotion to another. Hence its lightness: the darkness underneath the speech – the discussions of death and dying, the cruelty – sit as part of a wider, multiply textured tapestry.
As happens when you encounter an exciting work of art, it rinsed my perceptions, opening me up to the world around me. Catching the train home from Footscray felt as if I were still in the show: my casual public transport eavesdropping was suddenly formalised and self aware. I was in the world, listening to the infinite poetry of the everyday, a small part of its realness, its strange, ordinary beauty.
Earshot, created by Kate Hunter with Josephine Lange and Jem Savage. Footscray Community Arts Centre as part of the Due West Arts Festival. Closed.