A show that propagates questions: Alison Croggon on Nicola Gunn’s Working with Children
Nicola Gunn is a fascinating artist, mining a vein somewhere between live art, physical performance and conventional theatre. In her solo works, such as Piece for a Person and Ghetto Blaster or In Spite of Myself, she investigates various theatricalities of the self, sliding between the fictional and the autiobiographical as a charming, unreliable narrator whose transparency is always in question.
The self she plays with is and isn’t Nicola Gunn. It’s mediated, as we all are, by the cultures it inhabits – artistic culture, which is where she begins, that bleeds into the minutiae of social or corporate power relationships. Nicola Gunn, or “Nicola Gunn”, peels back the tiny duplicities that conceal our complicities with power, our vulnerabilities. The discomfort she creates is often very funny.
Working with Children, commissioned as part of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Neon Next program, is one of her slyer works, from an oeuvre that is always sly: sly, that is, in the sense of “showing in an insinuating way that one has some secret knowledge that may be harmful or embarrassing: roguish, mischievous, impish, puckish, playful, teasing, naughty, wicked, waggish”. Bizarrely, perhaps, her humour reminds me of Jane Austen, who also wrangled a very sharp needle in her micro-tapestries of daily middle class life.
This show is about sex or, maybe more accurately, an exploration of eroticism. What are these things? What is erotic? What does it have to do with power? Gunn never directly poses these questions, although questions are asked (and even the asking of questions is questioned). But it propagates questions constantly. So many questions.
It begins with absurdity: the lights rise on Gunn dressed neck to foot in shiny black rubber. As if she’s in a shower, she rubs lubricant all over herself, pours a bucket of water on the floor and then throws herself across the stage, skidding through the darkness. Then, in light so low we can barely see her, she strips off the rubber suit and dresses herself in jeans, sneakers and t-shirt. The lights rise, and she begins to speak.
The text of Working with Children is a series of short, apparently disconnected monologues. At the centre is a hypothetical about a famous European director who is imported by a major arts festival to create a show in which teenagers ask adults about sex in a talk show format. Gunn is intrigued by a moment during the show when one of the teens shows the adult a sex toy and asks what it is, and then mocks her interlocutor for having a small penis.
Nobody, she says, finds this moment as interesting as she does. And it is clearly the moment through which coil the other stories in the show – the noisy neighbour having audible sex above her, the office worker nicknamed “Cod” because everyone could smell her vagina, the dubious personal and professional life of the famous director who is getting teens to talk about masturbation on stage.
The text is accompanied by a repetitive series of movements, half dance, half yoga routine, which have a rhythmic relationship to how she speaks and are dislocated from meaning. They visibly tire her. Sometimes she slips on the wet floor. It’s hypnotic, like her performance – Gunn is the most watchable and engaging of performers – but feels neurotic, a kind of psychic trap through which she moves without progression.
“In my spare time,” says Gunn at one point, “I’m writing an erotic novel called I Am A Unicorn, in which I am a unicorn and everything is erotic.” Perhaps this novel is a symbol of escape.
Kelly Ryall’s sound moves unobtrusively from birdsong to dance/trance music and back, and behind her are projected an increasingly complex series of shapes – squares, circles, columns – although I never tracked whether or how these related to the text.
Each of Gunn’s anecdotes or suppositions expose tiny moments of discomfort or revelation, none of them especially significant in themselves, but artfully connecting and accumulating to create something – vicious? Vicious is the word I want to use, although it doesn’t seem quite correct. Vicious, like the glimpse in Persuasion of Sir Walter Elliott, a man “who, for his own amusement, never took up any book but the Baronetage” where “he could read his own history with an interest which never failed”.
With the same kind of deadly precision, Gunn articulates, gesture by gesture, the misogynies underlying the relationships she describes. The famous director, surrounded by subordinate women, the “random woman” he chooses to visit and sleep with, turning up without invitation. The misogyny that means a woman’s detectable vagina means the cancellation of meetings because the smell is so disgusting. Gunn creates embarrassments, an awkwardness of consciousness. Who is embarrassed, though? She leaves that question hanging.
These embarrassments are wound through with other suppositions, other vulnerabilities. Does a word come first, or the object it names? If so, what is a unicorn? What is the word “unicorn” if it names something that doesn’t exist? Or: How is it that a 13 year old knows that a penis is tiny? What is that ambiguous flip of power between the adult and child that means the adult is mocked?
But then, the teen got it wrong. How humiliating, to get something wrong in front of other people. Gunn calls it “cultural trauma”, a term she makes both ironic and not ironic. Perhaps the cultural trauma is the teen asking a question about a sex toy in the first place. How did that happen? Who decided this, who bought the prop? Does it have any continuing effect on the child? If so, what effect?
Gunn leaves us to ask these questions ourselves. Or not, as we choose. At the end of the show she creates her erotic novel for us, carrying from behind the curtain a series of inscrutable objects: a bottle which foams green when she pours a liquid into it, a medical IV trolley from which liquid drops percussively onto a tin can, a pulsating cushion which whispers “I am a unicorn”, a frame and mirror which create a Rothko-like abstract projection. One electrical structure which generated little puffs of smoke, and which seemed far too complicated for the job.
It’s a strangely beautiful installation. An eroticism entirely abstracted from human bodies, in which the subject becomes a mythical animal. It’s also kind of devastating. Perhaps it’s really a show about loneliness.
Working with Children, concept, text, direction, design and performance by Nicola Gunn. AV and Spatial Design by Nick Roux, music and sound design by Kelly Ryall, lighting and spatial design by Bosco Shaw, costume design and co-set realisation by Eugyeene Teh, dramaturgy by Jon Haynes. Lawler Studio, Melbourne Theatre Company, until September 29. Bookings
Contains coarse language, adult themes, nudity and strobe effects. Recommended for ages 16+. For more information about content, click here.
Wheelchair access and audio aids available.