Ten years ago, Elbow Room premiered There. During Melbourne Fringe, they remounted it in tandem with Here, a new work by the same artists. Robert Reid winds his way through the metatheatrical labyrinth
Ten years ago, writer and director Marcell Dorney and actors Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant developed and presented the first production of the new independent theatre company, Elbow Room. There won the Adelaide Fringe Festival award for Best Performance at the Melbourne Fringe. Since then, Elbow Room has produced many acclaimed works, including The Motion of Light in Water at Theatreworks, We Get It as part of Neon at MTC in 2015 and most recently a remount of their 2013 work Pre-historic, which has just returned from the Edinburgh Fringe.
There and Here bracket this period and are like tree rings, in that they show where the work and its makers were at a particular period of growth. There is a remount of the 2008 original, staged in the same room, with the same cast. As far as I can tell it is the same production; nothing stands out as different, other than the age of the actors and myself. Here is a new work by the same creative team, made in response to the original and presented in the same room, one week after the remount of There.
It does seem convoluted, now I put it down on paper. That’s not surprising, as both There and Here are both densely self-aware meta theatre. Taken together, the weight of their collective self-referentiality threatens to collapse into a never-ending series of metaphors. Even the titles in chronological order create dramaturgical tension, as the temporal baggage makes me instinctively want to reverse them even as I’m saying them. There and Here.
In the centre of the almost bare black stage of The Loft at the Lithuanian club are two black cloth blocks. A pillar, uncertain and unsteady looking. Two blocks of theatre blacks, roughly equal. An altar. As below, so above.
From the darkness, the two performers and the performance evolve into speaking, functioning bodies. From theatrical amoeba they grow into finger puppets lit by individual torches. They move from these into the rest of their bodies. Two torches, two microphones and two actors. They discover and create as they go. They find their voices and then speech, which immediately becomes the text from Agamemnon, the first drama.
Their play is drama as we know it, with western European foundations and assumptions. They use elements of mime and clown and mask, moving between Agamemnon and the Chorus, but this chorus makes the leap from ancient Greece to advertising slogans. We rush forward through the conception of drama as if we’re in a Kubrik film. The logic is the forward energy of a developing plot, but there is no plot, or it’s a plot abstracted to its momentum. The concept of character drags behind, until it races forward and slips sideways into a new abstraction. From Greek drama to advertising to soap opera realism.
The actors stand on their chairs, their altar, to call forth the golden straw-coloured spotlight, the spreading dawn, the audience’s attention focused by the light and shadow. Agamemnon calls to us, but when he drifts into commercials the lights dim on stage to darkness. The lighting gods are displeased and withdraw their plenitude.
The performance becomes more self-aware as it evolves. The Greeks return to overtake the soap opera. The Greeks murder him in his chair. He gets up and goes out into the audience. She remains on stage. This is one of the moments I remember most clearly from the first time. He calls out to her from the floor. Interrupts her. Heckles her, sort of, and stops short of calling her…what, a wanker? She asks who he is and from the floor, surrounded by us, he answers “you’re up there, I’m down here, what does that make me?” “The love of my life,” she says.
She tells us of her love for us. She never calls us an audience, never describes us as the gossiping murmur of judgemental foyers, never names her love performing or the theatre. Instead, she describes her love for how we make her feel when we love her, how she hates how we make her feel when we hate her (because we just don’t get it).
That’s gotta sing for a lot of us.
This anniversary production has lost nothing of its cleverness and is undulled by nostalgia. It’s what it was 10 years ago, universal and timeless. Theatre creates itself to reflect on itself, and then it evaporates. It races through thousands of years of theatre history as it comes to terms with its own fraught legitimacy.
There are clever moments. Torch lights swing over the audience, stopping over individuals and revealing what they’re thinking. According to the torch, no one in the audience is particularly enjoying the performance. It seems to assume its audience is critical, but I don’t think we felt that. This audience feels more encouraging and indulgent, like a tentatively proud parent.
Does the audience conceive this drama through its presence in the space reflected by the creative team? Are we proud of the strutting, fretting hour (well, 45 minutes) in which we have been complicit? Regardless, our time together is brief and terminated suddenly.
The performers’ rages at each other and at us, their confusion and discoveries move towards a climax which blinks out of existence almost as quickly as it flickered into the torch light. She extends her hand to him, gloved once more, as it had been earlier to hold the magic torch of endowment. She invites him up from the audience to join her on stage, to give his presence the meaning it can only possess by being in the light. Together once more under the light, they are suddenly reduced back to hand puppets. Perhaps reduced is wrong: they are replaced, as actors, shows, theatres, zeitgeists and agents in any system are replaced. Their tenuous moments pass, just as the static frames of film trick us into seeing movement where there is none.
If theatre could birth itself, if the liminal space could attain consciousness and spit out its own mouthpiece, its neurotic introspection would surely manifest as Elbow Room’s There.
In the meantime, time passes. Time is about to pass. A decade between developments, a week between productions. I saw There on a Sunday night. A week is a long time in politics, which speaks to how quickly a politician will betray you. Between There and Here, I find that I can’t make it to Here on Sunday night, and instead reschedule to Tuesday. Life comes with lag. Our processing speeds are imperfect, my schedule is out of whack and I’m trying to catch up with everything. I’m applying new, very new, frameworks to my life during this week. New lenses through which to see things. How time twists and distorts when you see it from different directions, a kind of red shift in perception. Speeding and slowing at the same time, leaving tree rings and scars at moments of growth.
The altar of theatre blacks is back. Centre stage on the same bare stage from 10 years ago. We drop in to the last five minutes of There. They argue. “You’re there and I’m here… what does that make me?”
But rather than going into blackness and applause, Emilie steps off stage and makes her way to the back of the theatre. Em speaks into it. Angus calls her name from the stage. They have names now, Em and Angus, the performers who made the other show. They’ve developed these names in the interregnum: in There they were nameless, nearly voiceless, bodies in black tights.
Angus is trapped on the stage while Em is making her way to him down the side aisle. She works like a team of miners trying to excavate lost children, or other miners. A lot has happened in 10 years. Angus is trapped in a machine, not a mine. A metaphorical machine or a machine that makes metaphors. Either way, he’s convinced it will make minced meat of him.
There is a lot more of their own lives and their selves in this version. While There explored how a work of theatre happens, Here asks what it means to return to a work, how we have changed when what we do changes and is, by implication at least, impossible to recapture.
There are useful versions of this kind of story, narratives we might hang our hat on, and they shuttle past, reframing us around what this project is now. There are faded rock stars (from Brisbane, of course) discussing the merits of reuniting, should they ever break up. This scene has echoes of Prehistoric. There is a tv chat show interview. It’s suggested we imagine Graham Norton. The interview focuses on Angus, as if he’s the celebrity, and I wonder how we moved so quickly from asking what is it to be in this space with There to wondering how it might be to live famous lives with Here.
Em, as the chat show host, interrogates Angus about his decision to stop making theatre in order to have a family. Angus tells us when he saw Em in a show and took a moment to recognise her, he felt compelled to return to the stage, to look for that part of himself that was defined by performance. The self that Em described as “the love of her life” in There. The part of us that only feels real under the light. In the play he saw, she was wearing a blond wig, a white coat and was playing a right wing tv personality (this is her character from Elbow Room’s 2015 We Get It.) She’s wearing this costume – or an approximation of it – again now as she interviews him. She’s not the same character. It doesn’t quite fit her now, it slips off her like an ill-fitted overcoat, heavy and askew.
The chat show host asks Angus why he’s made this return, to the stage and to Elbow Room’s first work. He’s been afraid or he’s afraid now, he tells us. He misses performing. Despite having the family and the job, there is a part of him that has been left in the empty space. He misses telling the truth from inside a machine designed to amplify and obscure it. Up until early 2010, Grant was active as a performer on stages around Australia, but after The Life and Death of King John in Adelaide, he performs much more infrequently. In 2011, again in 2012, again in 2014 and again in 2017. (according to Ausstage, which is continually being updated so I may have missed some.) So is what he says in the interview in Here true? Did he find himself isolated from theatre because the demands of a family and children are incompatible with the demands of a career in live performance? Of course they are, but is this the case for Angus? Does it matter when it’s the case for so many of us any way? The question Here asks now is more than how a work is made: it’s how does one survive to keep making it.
Em calls out the fact that the story has been largely focused on Angus. In fact, a great deal of There also places him at the centre. Em highlights it this time, shining the torch light on the audience once more to capture and illuminate what they’re thinking. “Why doesn’t she tell her story?” “Why doesn’t the play ask her any questions” “Why doesn’t she tell us about her children?” These are fair question. She doesn’t have any children, she tells us, but her reasons for being “here” are left hanging. Beyond her love of us and an acknowledgement that performing used to mean so much, that it was the only thing that, from another’s point of view, gave her life value. Emily Tomlins has been in several of the best shows I’ve seen this year alone. This may be Angus Grant’s first show of the year? Em calls it an empathy gap. Angus wants to fill it with Tears for Fears’ Mad World but Em refuses to allow the tension to resolve in a cheap ending, a solution that hasn’t been earned.
There is some discussion of value and earning things. How there must be an exchange of some sort to make the experience worth sacrificing the moments of our lives for. Angus and Em must suffer or go on their journey or come into conflict so that those who give their attention are properly recompensed. I wonder what material there is to mine in why WE, the audience, are here. We feel like a silent third voice in Here, which was not present (at least not as present) in There.
But if There interrogates how we get “there” – a creation, a performance, the act of communicating at all – Here might also ask what are we all doing here.
Being here. In this dramaturgically charged moment. In the machine, as Here would have it. Angus is caught in the machine that will grind him into raw and bloody mince-meat, but so are the rest of us. It’s a machine that makes patterns or, rather, reveals patterns and makes meaning. Or, really, it functions so that together performers and audience can make meaning.
As with There, performance theory is abstracted and scattered throughout Here. It is impressively meta, hyper aware of its self, of Self itself. And yet it sidesteps the fundamental paradox that in this space there is no self as described. There are concatenations of self, some built out of fictions, others built out of truths. Maybe. Truths are unreliable in the machinary of There and Here.
Together There and Here feel like two versions of the same relentlessly deconstructed task. Make work is the provocation. How and How again are the interrogatory impulses.
There are structural echoes and moments that rhyme which are perhaps less organic to Here. Moments which call back to There, rewarding the faithful and those who pay attention and reminding the rest of us that one is connected to the other. But, as with every other sequel that goes out of its way to find superficial resonance with its predecessors, they don’t feel as genuine.
I’m reflecting on the two together now, on the train on the way to another show, because everything moves on at a relentless pace. Here brings age, experience and the passage of time into the rehearsal room to make a less resounding ending to There, a second act that diffuses without defining or redefining. Returning to the mirror with a polaroid of yourself as a home-made headshot. The grass is no greener, nor different… we are all maybe just a little closer to seeing it from underneath.
I’m not sure what more I wanted from Here, what more I might fairly ask of this work. It’s honest. It’s clever. It expands on the themes of the original, even if it doesn’t substantially add to it. I want my experience of the old to be expanded by the new. Here doesn’t offer transcendence of itself, it remains itself, as it was, as it is now. Altered, but the same, reaching out Tomlin’s black gloved hand to invite the audience up onstage along with Grant.
Is Here a necessary addition to There? Does it add to the already labyrinthine self-referentiality that Dorney, Grant and Tomlins created ten years ago? Is there value to adding another mirror to the fun house?
I’m not sure. It’s an interesting exercise, certainly, but I can’t help but wonder if, instead of mining old territory on the same spot, there might be still a great deal to be discovered by exploring the new territory right next door.
There, created by Marcel Dorney with Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant. Performed by Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant.Presented by Elbow Room Theatre. At The Loft, The Lithuanian Club as part of Melbourne Fringe.
Here, created by Marcel Dorney with Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant. Performed by Emily Tomlins and Angus Grant.Presented by Elbow Room Theatre. At The Loft, The Lithuanian Club as part of Melbourne Fringe.