Alison Croggon and Robert Reid review Lone, a fascinating new work from The Rabble and St Martins Youth Theatre
Here be spoilers
Room 2: Alison
The Rabble’s work has always stretched the question of what theatre is, dragging the visual arts, live art and poetry into the purview of the stage. In these terms, it’s hard to say what Lone is: it’s most like an installation. Meanwhile, St Martins focuses on creating theatre by children that is designed for adults, working with our best independent companies. It’s resulted in some of the most interesting theatre of the past few years, such as Fraught Outfit’s trilogy of The Bodily Education of Young Girls, The Bacchae and The Book of Exodus.
One of the most exciting aspects of these works is the sense of each child’s autonomy, that it’s a collaboration in the real sense of the word. This feeling is especially strong in Lone, on which these two companies have been working since 2015. Lone is an invitation to enter the private imaginative world of a child. A half hour alone with a young stranger, in which we might contemplate what it means to be alone, or to be lonely.
It’s interesting to reflect how rare an experience this is. The lives of children are uniquely divided between private family life, where all intimacy is shared with people who usually have known the child since birth, and collective spaces like school. Children – the lucky children, that is – are shielded from the perceived risks of the adult world. “Stranger danger” was a thing when I was growing up, a risk that’s directed outwards even though, as for women, statistically the most dangerous place for children is inside their own homes.
The risk that surrounds this proposition is reinforced by the necessary bureacucracy of entering the space. No one is allowed into Lone if they don’t provide photographic ID, which is copied and kept for a month. We are given our tickets – a sticker with the number of our assigned room – and, when the time comes, are lined up and given instructions by the ushers. It is, in fact, rather as if we are the children: already something about our authority as adults is being destabilised. Then the group of 11 is divided in two, led into different ends of the Town Hall and told to find our assigned rooms.
The main performance space of the Town Hall is dimly lit. Inside are 11 white cubby houses, probably about two or three metres square. Audience members have been dliberately led into the other end of the space from their room, which means we have to look for it. It’s hard to discern the numbers, which are painted in white, and even harder to find Room 2: the door is facing the wall. I’m aware that I need to find it before the lights go down, and arrive at the front door in a state of mild anxiety.
I put on the headphones waiting for me outside the door, and enter a space in which I am not the authority.
I encounter ten-year-old Jackson Reid, who is apparently asleep on the floor in grey jimjams. The white room is decorated with leafless sticks, some hanging from the ceiling, some propped up against the wall. I’m irrestistably reminded of the cubby houses I built obsessively when I was a country kid. They reached high levels of sophistication – my unfinished masterpiece had a brick floor and bark roof, although I never got around to building the walls, and it’s naked structure looked out over the dam for years.
I sit on the low stool that seems to be for me, and wait. I’m listening to Emma Valente’s sound through the headphones – percussive water, shifting rhythms. It’s very peaceful, a space that somehow is without demands and that doesn’t expect anything of me.
The light shifts and Jackson sits up and washes his hands in a bowl of water. He doesn’t look at me: he fiddles with the sticks, scratching the wall. (When I leave, I see he’s been scratching the days and crossing them out, like a prisoner.) What follows is mostly silent: a performance of a child playing with the kind of unself conscious absorption that we lose too easily as we grow into adulthood, a dumbshow of fear and hiding, of peeping out through a window.
When he finally meets my eye, he wordlessly invites me to sit with him. He offers me the water bowl, where I can wash my hands. He stands up and asks if I can see him. Yes, I can. The lights are dimming. “Am I gone?” “No.” He asks three times, and by the third time, he has disappeared and I am alone in the dark, listening to a short monologue. It’s a fantasy of escape into the ocean,of becoming part of something bigger than oneself, a surreal poem of the longing to journey.
It’s such a simple performance, and yet it’s terribly moving. The intimacy it offers is delicate and oblique: it’s not, after all, the intimacy that emerges from knowing someone, but rather the kind of intimacy that art offers, the sharing of an imaginative space in which memory, conscious and subconscious, might flower into the present. Its effect wasn’t unlike the feeling I had in Teatro de los Sentidos’s Oráculos, which is one of the pioneering shows of immersive theatre: the creation of an immensely gentle environment, a place without judgment, which permits the invocation of a permeable, fertile mental state of contemplation. It was a beautiful half hour of my life.
Room 5: Rob
We enter alone and we exit alone, but in-between there are two of us.
There are several stages of preparation for this work. We are given numbers, that will correspond to the room we are to head to. We line up to enter, according to our numbers. We enter and enter again and enter again. From the foyer of Artshouse to a black-curtained corridor, where we wait again, a nowhere space, not the world, not the show, anticipation corralled. One by one we are let into the world and tasked to search for the room with our number.
Lots of different boxes, each a different room, each of our experiences will be unique. Looking for my room I catch glimpses of the others in here with me, searching for their own number, their own experience. Furtive ghosts flicker between white walls. I find my room. There are headphones to wear. I wait outside for the lights to come on inside. This is my cue.
I hesitate when they do.
The whole room is draped with black and white cords. I fidget and they hang over me too, falling into my hands, so I tangle them around my fingers. A girl in grey lies tangled in them on the floor. The walls are white. I bring into this room a returned seventies future aesthetic and it’s easy to project onto the design.
She says, “What is my name?” Not asking for mine, but curious about her own. I don’t know the answer and I don’t know how to answer. My role here isn’t clear yet. Does she know I’m here or is there a fourth wall I’m not supposed to break? As is often the case in immersive work it’s left open how present you are as the audience. This causes some existential angst about the rules of engagement, but perhaps that’s just me. Maybe more people like to feel their way through these social moments. Me, I like to know the rules beforehand, if possible. Or at least for the rules to be manifest.
I watch as she wakes up. There is rain in my headphones. She explores her space. Plays with the ropes, gathering and tangling them in interesting ways that transform the room. It’s meditative. It’s sweet. It’s easy to read innocence onto her because she’s young and quiet. it’s a danger of the uncanny valley to read emotions where there might be none.
From outside the room I can just make out noises from other rooms. Sometimes it just vibrations through the floor, and it makes me wonder what’s happening in the space outside the rooms, mine and all the others. What’s passing through the nowhere space these worlds float in.
She has found a mirror amongst the wires and is looking at herself through it. I catch a glimpse of her face in reflection. It’s the first time I’ve really seen her properly. It happens again. And again. The third time she smiles and waves at me through the mirror. I can’t help but smile back. I have the impulse to wave too, but I restrain it because I still don’t know where I am. Is she waving at me? If I’m wrong and I wave back I will feel silly but also I’ll interrupt the unfolding, if only for myself. When the real crashes in, the liminal never quite recovers. So, I’m cautious.
At some point during this interaction, I feel like I become the person she can see in the mirror. Another android, clone, prisoner? Am I another body in a box, one of the others here, and we can see each other through the mirror like it’s a portal or a camera? When she first discovered it, she was surprised to see someone in there. I thought it was her own reflection, as it must have been, but maybe it was mine.
She asks, What is your name? Is she asking me? I can feel that thought on my face. She can read it and nods, encouragingly, almost imperceptibly. She asks again and this time I tell her.
She invites me to sit next to her on the floor. I go. She ties two of the ropes around my wrist and says “I am Rob.”
She leaves me alone in the room not long after. I listen to the rain, the waves, the pinging science fictiony soundscape. A beat enters and her voice, I think, speaks through the headphones. Almost a song. Skimming rhythmical words and sounds, disjointed reflections on emotion and the weather.
The lights shift and change around me alone in this small room. The go to black eventually and, as we have been forewarned, we are left in the dark for a moment, listening, waiting for lights outside the door to come on.
I sit in the dark, tangling the cords again. The hesitation returns, waiting for the end, unsure when to leave. I wonder if this is how the android feels. Have I become her? Sitting on the floor. Tangling myself in the cords. Waiting for release. Asking for identity.
Did I become a robot becoming aware of itself? Was my room as a ritual transference of my consciousness into an artificial body? Maybe.
I can’t say it will be the same for everybody.
Lone, created by Emma Valente and Kate Davis. Set and costumes by Kate Davis, lighting and sound design by Emma Valente. Performers, creators and designers: Clea Carney, Abigail Fisher, Ashanti Joy, Remy Lawlor, Ave Maui, Lola Morgan, Griffin Murray-Johnston, Raven Okello, Jackson Reid, Thomas Taylor and Frankie Wilcox. The Rabble and St Martins Youth Theatre at Arts House Melbourne until June 17. Bookings
This is work is created by children for adults. It is a one-on-one installation that is designed to be experienced alone. Children under the age of 14 are not permitted to enter the theatre.
Wheelchair accessible. Haze and strobe lighting.