In exploring homelessness in Melbourne, Crash With Me skirts uncomfortably close to trauma porn, says Monique Grbec
Verbatim theatre in this country has a proud history. The critically acclaimed work of artists such as Roslyn Oades explores vocal fingerprints and mismatched fidelity to create a sense of lived adrenaline, in which the natural poetry of human interaction blooms. The perfume of humanity lingers through the performance.
Crash with Me: Freedom has No Fixed Address enters the realm of poverty and trauma porn to objectify and at times romanticise housing insecurity and the experience of being homeless. For anyone who’s ever worried about paying their rent or their mortgage, that tight chest and stomach has nothing to do with freedom. Perhaps the Freedom has No Fixed Address subtitle is satire: but surely satire isn’t fitting for verbatim performance?
The stage is a high concrete rooftop with a backdrop of other tall buildings and passing clouds. There are four actors in uniforms of black jeans and tops with differently coloured checkered shirts. Plastic milk crates are used as props.
Fragments of interviews taken from Melbourne’s homeless people are linked into a stream of consciousness text that lists the challenges of surviving a life of uncertainty. The flow between actors is mostly smooth and starts with a motivational “don’t give up”. An argument gets out of hand and leads to a scream: “Get out of the house! So I did. This is not a “rinse and a repeat life… being homeless is a bad memory.” The call for the rich to do more is followed by “one day the rich kids might be nice”.
At times the stage performance is replaced by a red screen identified as “Swiper”, a meet-up app. White and black or green and white text bubbles appear with the familiar “ding” and we see the kinds of conversations that happen when you’re a homeless woman asking for somewhere safe to sleep. Sexual assault is commonplace in the search for a roof to keep the rain off.
“Maybe you could do something for me…. I like red bikinis… Would you watch when I play with myself… I’m okay with just seeing your face… that’s payment enough.”
“I’ll sleep on the floor…”
“I want you to be safe and warm… I care about all strangers. I might have a little fun with you too though. Just some oral and some light BDSM if you like… Blow jobs daily… Make daddy cum.”
“I can’t stay without sex?”
The actors take turns listing “their” experiences of being scammed at homeless shelters or couch surfing, of “fairy floss real-estate with five people in a three bedroom house”, or a boardinghouse with “ex-junkies, ex-jailbirds, and prostitutes” and too many people coming and going. The use of the term “jailbird” disrupts the flow, like a record scratching.
The choreography is fluid, with the actors performing in sequence to classical music. There’s a unified experience of pain on a tram where the quartet, fists in the air, sways as if they’re holding an overhead strap and synchronised movement with the crates; sometimes they stand on them, sometimes they sit on them, and at others times they carry them.
As a tension-building device, the performers stand on the milk crates and take turns to affirm their consensus: “nothing was mine”. Because when you don’t have somewhere regular to stay, how can you carry your “stuff” around? I kept wondering if this was what the writers considered “freedom”?
The challenges of having no fixed address when attempting to access Centrelink were woven into vignettes about busking as an alternative to get money for food, pads or pot. An actor who explained how her character regularly used toilet paper instead of pads wore grey undies over her black jeans like a superhero.
There are other practicalities. Sometimes when public toilets weren’t open the homeless people peed in bushes, which were often cleaner than the public toilets. A monologue about the things you take for granted as a kid, such as soap and shampoo, becomes an actor’s physical display of washing their hair with dish detergent.
Crash With Me explores issues around health, injuries, grieving, self-harm, mental illness and addiction. A Christmas carol piano soundtrack backgrounds finding a drinking buddy to combat loneliness, showing how alcohol is a catalyst for several characters being forced back into homelessness.
When one actor ponders the morality of being given free drinks in exchange for company, the question arises of how the Sneakyville Theatre Company compensated their interviewees.
Crash With Me does capture the constant stress of living a life in survival mode, of being without food, family and somewhere to sleep. But is this freedom? Can food and housing insecurity ever be more than a gut-wrenching cage that keeps the disadvantaged chained by their own powerlessness? Let’s hope for a future where all the relatively “rich kids” are more than “nice” to their fellow humans.
Crash With Me, written by Damian Hivon, Benji Wragg and Lauren Huggard. Performed by Bennie Wragg, Damian Hivon and Lauren Huggard. Presented by Sneakyville Theatre Company as part of Melbourne Fringe on November 25.