‘I realise that I don’t believe any more that silence is Australia’s problem, that I think the opposite’: Robert Reid sorts through his dissastisfactions with Belarus Free Theatre’s co-production with Malthouse, Trustees
I keep wanting to say “well, duh…”
I keep wanting to describe the critique that Trustees offers as superficial. I’m trying not to, because that itself seems like a superficial response. Despite some arresting staging, Trustees barely skims the surface of the territory it claims. It presents commonplace observations about culture in Australia as though they are profound insights and, if this is the point, it never lets us in on the joke.
Trustees progresses through formal and tonal shifts (from participatory panel discussion to dramatic scene to dance piece to individual confessional to direct address, and so on), which gives it the feel of a Dantean descent. At each shift, we seem to fall through the floor of each moment’s anxiety and into a new, fresh hell.
The marketing for Trustees asks us, “Amid the chatter and outrage and belligerence of public conversation lies a void: the Great Australian Silence. What are we afraid of hearing? Who are we afraid will say it?”
I take issue with the premise. In the most literal way, I feel that Trustees doesn’t know what it’s talking about.
The phrase “the Great Australian Silence” was coined in 1968 by W.H. Stanner when he argued that there was a “cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale” in Australia to its history of European interaction with the First Nations people, the dispossessions and the massacres. The rest of that quote describes this forgetting as “a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time” into a terrible erasure. Of course, that silence persists throughout the country today, particularly in affluent, conservative and white communities. However, the levels of hell Trustees lowers us through feels as familiar and toothless to me as football tribalism or the rivalry between states.
The marketing also challenges us to ask: “Who is meant to have an opinion in modern Australia? Maybe it’s best you don’t answer that.” The conceit of dropping through superficial layers of concern for culture into individual stories, histories and hells, is clear and cleverly staged. But whose concern for whose culture? I’m unclear, and remain unclear throughout the show.
Every performer is strong, talented and committed, giving their all, but they’re let down by the dramaturgy of the performance. In their notes, directors Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin of Belarus Free Theatre tell us that making this work has been fraught. They say: “More than a dozen drafts of the play later, the withdrawal of several actors from the project and the abandonment of the original idea, it seemed we were unlucky travellers…” I think it shows; these difficulties are reflected in the text (they become part of one of the confessional sections) and in the conception of the performance itself. They also mention that the first concept was to make a show about how Australia is seen by the rest of the world. Mmm, well, I’m at least glad they didn’t follow through on that: surely we’ve had enough of Australia being defined by other countries.
Early on, I’m a little thrown by red herrings. There are feints towards immersive and participatory performance, the suggestion that this will be an interrogation of funding and privilege in contemporary Australian theatre. In the foyer is a screen that tells us that “The Ortolan is a seed-eating songbird that is little bigger than a child’s hand. It has been banned from restaurant menus in much of Europe since 1999.” As the doors to the Beckett open and we head in, I think I see Daniel Schlusser in a suit behind me, talking to the audience as we enter… I think he’s in the show? Yes, Natasha Herbert is entering the foyer from the theatre now, suited and walking with a cane. She looks official, with a set of jaw that suggests she’s in character.
The room is set up in the round, in the manner of a corporate seminar. Screens on the walls instruct us to go to a website and log in to contribute. Anne-Marie Peard and I must notice these at the same time, because as she tells me to log into the site to see if it’s a real thing, I’m already opening the browser on my phone. Yes, it’s a real site. I gather, my heart beginning to sink ever so faintly, that we’ll be doing some online voting.
The decisions of theatre makers about how much participation is allowed display different levels of generosity and control. The more strictly limited the options for the audience, the more fine control the artist has over their creation and the less genuine the contributions of participants. A participating audience can do so much more than online voting and its inclusion feels superficial. We’re given the agency of a dressmaker’s dummy. I ask myself if Trustees would have changed in any meaningful way if this feint at co-creation wasn’t included, and I don’t think it would have been.
The actors have been moving among us in character, introducing themselves (I get a selfie with Natasha Herbert – I never know how to look in these things). It’s definitely conference-ish. The performers feel a bit distant and guarded, making this feel as if this is a political event and these are the candidates. My thinking is already being shaped by the presence of an online voting system –metaphors for interaction can be contagious and shape the subsequent interactions. There’s something to be said here about the way social media is used to influence opinion, perhaps about how sharing a link on Facebook makes us feel like we’ve participated in the political process, but an equal part of me recognises a primitive attempt to engage a participating audience. Contributing with our phones, keeping us in our seats; keeping everything safely in the hands of the artists.
The action begins as our host (Hazem Shammas) appears. He’s full of energy, with lots of encouraging shouting and positive fist pumps. We’re told that it’s been a long conference and he thanks us for hanging in there. He introduces the speakers for this session, representatives of the board of a major Australian theatre company (Lone Pine Theatre). They’ll debate the proposition that government funding for the arts does more harm than good.
The context is the shocking news that the Australian government has declared a total moratorium on funding for the arts. The screens around the room come to life with a TV News Anchor who gives us updates on the funding cuts and reappears, Virgil-like, when we need reminding where we are. Each panel member makes their arguments for and against, and our moderator encourages us to applaud our approval. There’s more applause for the “defund the arts” side than I’d have thought. Someone out there is playing devil’s advocate. For the hell of it, I hope.
The industrialist oil mining baron (Tammy Anderson) is for deregulating and getting out of the artists’ way, the sports celebrity spokesperson (Herbert) is for a nation of story tellers, the board chair (Schlusser) is – I think –for a national theatre…. Each gives cursory summaries of arguments for and against arts funding that are accurate enough but shed little insight. These are introductory statements before more reasoned and thoughtful arguments, yes?
We are asked to make our contribution and vote. 90 per cent vote “no, arts funding doesn’t do more harm than good”. We begin to mess around with the technology, and the result varies wildly; at one point we pass 50/50. We’re fickle fuckers, abandoning our principles so we can play with a new digital toy, but we’re also hectored towards this a little by our host. I feel that this moment reveals the emptiness of the interaction that’s offered us. We’re not invested, we come to it with our preconceptions showing. Of course 90 per cent of this audience is in favour of arts funding. We change our votes only after we realise that it doesn’t really matter.
The vote finally goes about two thirds our way. It never gets back to 90 per cent, I think because people had their fun and moved on from one consequence-free action to the next. Is this what we’re being asked to learn?
And then the performance shifts to the board room of the Lone Pine Theatre. We’re not in the room any more: it’s a play now. This new scene plays out our anxieties about the corporate structures of major theatre companies. The board, absent the artistic director, reacts to the news of the cuts to government funding. They’re all perfectly happy to close the company now it’s no longer sustainable without funding, until they become entranced by their own brilliant creativity and talk themselves into rebranding and relaunching the company. They decide to rid themselves of the troublesome artistic director and reimagine the company as an underground outback immersive experience. Some of the (deliberately) worst ideas I think I’ve ever heard.
The majors have insulated themselves from this funding crisis, they note, so they’ll be safe. Which suggests it’s just the rest of us who are to be defunded. The independent sector. This is exactly the situation the Major Performing Arts Group companies insured themselves against by lobbying for the creation of the MPA Board in the first place.
It occurs to me that if the fictional Lone Pine has been defunded, it must mean that they aren’t one of the MPAB companies. In which case, what is the tv doing reporting on their internal squabbles? Is this meant to be an airing of the dirty laundry of Australian culture? Does it show us that the business people who run our major companies make terrible artistic decisions driven by ego and class? That the arts aren’t seen as important in Australia? Is this a commentary on the Brandis raid on Australia Council funds? If it is, there’s no new information here.
Two years on from Brandis’s appropriation, Australia Council funding still hasn’t returned to its original level. Only this month, the revelation of another appropriation scandal in NSW arts funding surely demonstrates the contempt our governments have for culture. In a country that treats the Sydney Opera House as a billboard for hire, simply staging the atrocity is not enough. It is outdone by real life.
A choreographed section follows, in which the artistic director returns to be murdered by the new chairman. This dance transitions into Schlusser standing over the body of the artistic director, reciting Kevin Rudd’s victory speech from 2007 and setting fire to the board room table behind him. It’s a nice image.
I watch this scene with echoes of the Malthouse’s history ringing very loudly around me. The 2004 rebranding of Playbox into Malthouse. The short-lived appointment of the artistic triumvirate of James MacCaughie, Rex Cramphorn and Jill Smith. This company has its skeletons and this scene feels like a nightmare imagining of them. There are touches like this throughout Trustees, moments where the creators wink at the audience, saying things that they’re “not meant to say.” These ghosts may haunt the Malthouse, but all the key players moved on long ago. Some of them are literally dead.
There are also pointed references to the Israel/Palestine conflict and the sensitivity of theatre companies and certain donors who threaten to pull their funding at its mere mention. Is it supposed to shock us that cultural institutions that are starved of funding are anxious not to offend their few sources of private support? Is it a surprise that possibly the most sensitive cultural issue of the previous century (with a history stretching back actual millennia) is still a hot button topic today? I’m unclear who the outrage is directed towards. The companies? The country? The conflict? The production calls the issues out, but I notice that it’s pretty careful not to take any stand of its own. Like the voting by phone earlier on, it feels like window dressing.
While I’m listening for the Great Australian Silence, it strikes me that Australians are not silent about these things. In fact, most of the revelations presented by Trustees are things Australians never shut up about. Am I supposed to listen past this noise to the silence beyond? I can do that reading the Guardian or watching Sunrise. Where is domestic violence (that’s something we’ve been silent on for too long)? Where is climate change? Where is white male privilege? Where is the banking inquiry? Where is classism? Where is a Treaty for the First Nations people, where are reparations?
This is not serious criticism. It’s kinda just stating the obvious, though they do find novel ways to make it look pretty. No one is actually going to pull any funding because of this particular show.
As an entrée to the next few levels of hell, we are told about the Ortolan. Told how to prepare it, how to eat it, how to put our heads under our napkin when do so as to hide our crime from God. It’s a notorious delicacy, now illegal, that has become emblematic of the cruelty of wealth. Each performer relates a soliloquy of sorts that opens up five levels of hell. They’re confessional, exposing where the pain lies in their lives. The staging is abstracted but the text seems personal, individual nightmares of the past. Reflected in these stories are the scars and subconscious trauma of the country today. For the Europeans, it’s world war. For the Tasmanian, hundreds of years of dispossession and occupation. We hear about refugees and racism, the symbolisms of nationality and nationhood. These are the things, it seems, on which Australia remains silent.
But does it? Just because some things haven’t changed in centuries, it doesn’t mean people have been silent. Silences are imposed, but they fall on different communities for different reasons. Drawing all of us into a single “Australia” is perhaps the surest way to create that silence – the impulse towards assimilation into “one big (un)happy country” is the canonical error which brings on Stanner’s Great Australian Silence in the first place: the desire to simplify this chattering, shouting, complaining country, ringing with so many different voices, into one fictional unity called Australia. The decision to listen only to some of the voices. So which Australia is being critiqued here?
As the audience we are mostly placed outside the action, only occasionally teased with the idea that our presence is necessary. At this banquet of ritualised Australian outcries, who gets to speak isn’t really being challenged. As always, we’re the one who are mostly silent. We applaud when we’re told. We touch the actors when we’re told. We’re taught dance moves and play call and response with the actors. If Trustees stages a kind of fascism, it’s that of the artist holding the audience in thrall, promising us agency but only giving us the illusion.
At the end, we return to the actors in their suits, smiling at us as the conference speakers and debaters. We’re asked to get out our phones and contribute something Australia is silent about. It takes a while. Eventually, there’s racism. Nauru. The words grow into a word cloud as we contribute. Racism. Nauru. They become big angry red letters in the cloud.
This is us voting again. This is what the room thinks … I don’t notice sexism up there as prominently as I expect. Or domestic violence. I guess the pump has been well primed by the previous hour and a half; the performance teaches us the answers it wants us to give, and we give them. Racism. Nauru. It takes me a few minutes to find an answer of my own. By this time, someone has contributed (maybe mis-typed) “Claire”. Claire is getting bigger. A lot of us are voting that Australia stays silent on Claire. Almost as many as racism. She gets the red letters too.
Are we looking for light relief from the unending doom and gloom? Are we so desperate to escape the obvious that we seize on a typo and build it into our own joke at the end? Really, deep down, after everything…do we feel the same about Nauru as we do about Claire? Still, I’m not convinced that Trustees has revealed the shallowness of our culture or our politics. I think rather that the performance itself presents us with a shallow pool of middle class anxieties and leaves us wading through it.
We’ve moved a long way from where we started, as a fictional theatre company facing a mostly real funding crisis, stripping layer after layer away from the smiling face of our community… Trying to reveal the unsaid things under every programming decision, every season, every show; the cultural and familial detritus that builds up around us and under us and shapes how we see our world…. And I don’t know.
I wonder if this is just how Australia looks to outsiders, to people who know only its surface. I realise that I don’t believe any more that silence is Australia’s problem, that I think the opposite: there’s too much noise, too much bluster, too little action. We shout a lot about stuff but we don’t get out of our seats to change it. I think this is also my problem with Trustees. Like an Instagram post, it looks beautiful or meaningful but, in the end, it adds nothing but more noise.
Maybe I just wanted to have more chances for us to vote using the app thingy. But it seems to me that if we’re invited to participate in a work, that participation should be valued as an act of co-creation, or even have a direct impact on the outcome of the show. Otherwise the only real Australian silence in the room is our own.
Trustees, written by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin, with Daniel Schlusser and the cast. Directed by Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin. Set and costume design by Romanie Harper, lighting Design by Amelia Lever-Davidson, sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward. movement direction by Bridget Fiske. Performed by Tammy Anderson, Natasha Herbert, Niharika Senapati, Hazem Shammas and Daniel Schlusser. At the Malthouse as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 21. Bookings
Contains adult themes, nudity and coarse language.
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