Clockfire Theatre Company’s film adaptation of its physical theatre work we, the lost company sets a high bar, says Caitlin Doyle-Markwick
Water, water everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Two crustacean-like forms appear on a patch of flat, arid land, twitching and writhing under the midday sun, abandoned on the shore by an ocean that has retreated and lies calm, for now, beyond the orange strip of earth in the foreground.
The two forms seem to communicate with each other through convulsive, paroxysmal movements, occasionally synchronising as though they’ve reached some agreement on how, or if, they will return to the sea. One gets the sense of being outside of time, or of looking forwards and backwards at once. It could be an image out of the Mesozoic, when animal life ventured from the oceans and onto land, or from the future, on a hot, dry planet that has become hostile to more complex forms of life.
It’s the most arresting image from we, the lost company by Clockfire Theatre Company, a short film created for Sydney Fringe 2020 and presented in collaboration with Global Fringe. The work is an adaptation of a physical theatre piece originally devised in 2015, and is inspired by the paintings of Brett Whiteley, particularly those of the ocean and seaside Sydney, and their Japanese influences.
In the forced trend to live-streamed and filmed theatre – the results of which have been, to put it lightly, mixed – we, the lost company stands out as a success. While its inspiration in landscape paintings and the ability to film in situ made for a comparatively natural transition from theatre to film, Clockfire, alongside film-maker Laura Turner, have adeptly rearranged the original stage piece to make something that feels altogether new.
Turner’s framing of the scenery – often cropped to include only the simplest lines and shapes – and the drawing out of Whiteley’s signature oranges, blues and whites capture the essence of his paintings, and an old-style 4:4 camera effect in parts is a satisfying short cut to beachside nostalgia.
The work engages with the elemental aspects of water as the basis of all life on Earth, and the ocean as grand connector of all things and places, as well as an almost alien world that we live alongside. It explores two specific, if disparate, seaside ways of life: one that has already begun to fade – that of Japan’s Ama divers, women who would free-dive for hours at a time to obtain food; and another that sits at the centre of the projected, most innocent image of Australia – Sydney beach life.
The film features verbatim stories by mostly older people, reminiscences of time spent in the water, particularly in and around Sydney. The memories are largely joyful and whimsical, taking us back to endless summer afternoons spent in the sand – scenes that feel like the shared, uncomplicated childhood of this city, however misleading that notion might be. Only one story stands out as traumatic, in which a woman talks of being held under the water by a classmate as a girl. The story triggers the panicked sensation that we probably all retain in our bodies of having been under water too long against our will, reminding us that water can quickly become a hostile element.
But beneath the apparent cheeriness of all the stories is an undeniable melancholia. Not just the kind of melancholia that comes with all yearning for times past, but a pervasive sense of what is being lost now, before our eyes; landscapes and aquatic ecosystems that will never again be as they were.
This deep sadness has been named “solastalgia” by poet and philosopher Glenn Albrecht; a term that describes, if somewhat reductively, the experience of on-going loss as our natural surroundings are destroyed. I’ve heard parents talk about the sadness of knowing that their children will not know what it is to run through native grass and have thousands of different types of insects rise out of it, instead of just a few. In the same way, the cataclysmic changes underway in the earth’s oceans mean that the notion so many of us have about the sea as a place of endless, mysterious wonders, its depths impermeable and unalterable, has shifted profoundly in recent years.
The work’s otherwise cheerful reference to the Coleridge poem above touches on the increasingly fraught relationship with water on this continent, while the enchanting images of the Ama are coupled with a knowledge that such practices have been forced out of many parts of the world.
None of this, of course, is stated explicitly. But although we, the lost company was originally devised in 2015, its imagery has taken on new meaning. As performer-devisor Madeline Baghurst suggests in an interview, speaking of the piece’s openness to interpretation, we inevitably see it through the smoke-filled, socially-distanced lens of the past 12 months.
The dreamlike scenes of the seaside resemble what someone who hasn’t left the confines of their home for many months might remember the outdoors to look like – gloriously, but almost overwhelmingly, open and bright. Hinting at Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, the viewer gets the sense of being born anew or re-emerging into the world, our senses painfully alert, skin raw and easily burned by the sun, like the reddened female form that writhes and twitches next to an empty ocean pool under the blazing sun. Or how, deep in an REM sleep, the broken images of times spent happily by the ocean might return to them, interspersed with familiar representations of the beach from artworks like Meer’s “Australian Beach Pattern” or Dupain’s “Sunbaker”; a mnemonic mosaic of a world deeply embedded in our personal and social psyche, but temporarily beyond reach. The opening story speaks directly to the unreliability of nostalgic recollections; a man questions whether his childhood memory of an ocean pool is indeed a memory, or a series of images stitched together in his mind, or a dream entirely.
The music underneath this anecdote, and throughout, is anything but comforting. Ben Pierpoint’s soundtrack is beautifully complex, but superbly unsettling, shifting from single note, desolate piano to crackling guitar sounds that suggest both electrical energy and the unearthly noises emitted by the creatures and shifting sands beneath the waves. Although it’s overlaid with the lively sounds of beach life, the soundtrack evokes the eerie scenes described by Mark Fischer along the largely empty post-industrial coast of England. The haunted atmosphere of the film reminds us that the ocean is no longer an unchanging entity, but one that – like the Gothic landscapes that pepper Australian literature and art – could become vengeful.
But the more disturbing images sit alongside comically relatable seaside moments – like having to scoop the sand out of your swimmer bottoms or attempting to look like a chiselled sea god on the beach – a combination that is characteristic of the Lecoq-influenced Clockfire. It is the tension between these two things that ultimately makes the piece such a delight. Baghurst and Ryuichi Fujimura’s movement scenes are mesmerizing and fantastical, shifting between embodying some of the planet’s strangest creatures, to gently poking fun at humans’ odd seaside habits. The occasional jolt to a frantic pace, echoed in moments of fast-motion film, gives a sense of time itself speeding up and slowing down in waves, or of the moments in Earth’s history in which things, once slow-moving, change very quickly.
The entrancing image of a white, cloud-like figure (Alicia Gonzalez) gazing ethereally over the activity below that punctuates the film, holds an element of the all-knowing mystère, who might sound a warning if she spoke our language. Her meditative silence also brings to mind a line from Whiteley’s journal during his “ocean” phase: “… And then she said, ‘Please produce something beautiful and simple, so we don’t have to think too much,’ and I said, ‘Yes, it’s time for purity. Do you have a theme?’ She turned and tinglingly said, ‘Yes. The sea’.”
we, the lost company, adapted from the original stage work. Original concept and stage direction by Emily Ayoub, film by Laura Turner. Cinematography and editing by Laura Turner, performance direction by Emily Ayoub. Arrangements & Original composition by Ben Pierpoint with sampling from Billie McCarthy (vocals), Jack Murray (electronics), Julia Reidy (guitar) & Mary Rapp (cello). Interviews conducted by Emily Ayoub, Madeline Baghurst & Kate Worsley Performed by Madeline Baghurst, Ryuichi Fujimura & Alicia Gonzalez by Co-produced by Emily Ayoub & Madeline Baghurst, Clockfire Theatre Company.
we, the lost company will be streaming as part of Sydney Fringe Festival from September 26 to October 3.