Much of Jonathan Holloway’s first Melbourne Festival asked us to look at Melbourne in new ways.
I caught the tram down to the Docklands, and walked through an eerily deserted shopping mall before coming across the O’Brien Group Arena, a ice rink hidden from the city.
I walked through the backstage area of Hamer Hall, that feels like so many renovated backstage theatre spaces do – impersonal and sterile and one step removed from a hospital – before being expelled onto the stage of the 2500 seat theatre, seats hidden from our view by a sheath of black.
And I walked up the imposing steps at the top of Bourke Street to Parliament, ostentatiously looking down over the city and its subjects.
Newly moved to Melbourne, I’d never been to Hamer Hall before. I’d never walked through the doors of Parliament House. I’d never thought to look at the back of Docklands for an ice-skating rink. Holloway – new to Melbourne himself – made me realise just how foreign this city still is to me.
Vertical Influences, from Canada’s Le Patin Libre, is a joyous revisioning of what ice-skating and ice-dancing can be. There is much about the work that plays with the notions of the theatrical: the bodies appearing from shadows, the way the lights diffuse over the white ice, the reverberation of the slicing blades.
But, crucially, the show never escapes from the fact it is happening in a public ice rink. There is something beautiful in the incongruity of these contemporary performance makers working under bright orange Melbourne Mustangs banners; in the occasional joyous screams of children or crash of bottles into the recycling that bleeds through from the next room. The space is what it is.
While the company places the work within a dance context, it remains firmly borne of figure skating: both in conversation between the dancers and the ice, but also in the physical vocabulary of Axel jumps and parallel spins.
Simultaneously, though, the dancers reject the orthodoxies of figure skating. Their upper bodies are either too loose or too angular; they stomp their feet; they deliberately cut against the surface to create shards that fly through the air. It feels, in many ways, a more earthy and connected conversation with the ice: a relationship of love unlike anyone else working in contemporary dance. It couldn’t take place anywhere else.
Melbourne’s Parliament House was built after the gold rush, and you can sense the rivers of gold that coursed through the state coursing through the building. For the festival, it was the third venue for The Money, an interactive theatre project from British company Kaleider, after the suburban town halls of Prahran and Footscray.
I chose this performance because of its location, interested in the ways that a work about decision-making – where audience members must agree on how to spend a pool of money – would resonate in this monument to collective action and representation.
There were probably many factors that led to the performance I attended, which Van Badham wrote up for the Guardian, feeling less slippery (to steal a phrase from Lyn Gardner) and less about human nature than the work could be.
Perhaps it was the small crowd of a Saturday matinee. Perhaps this hour in the day made the audience more well-meaning, more left wing, and more outwardly socially conscious than it otherwise could have been. Perhaps it was how quickly and absolutely the one voice of dissent – an artist who said she’d like the money to pay her rent – was shut down. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that this group was lightly dissenting and intermittently chastising, but ultimately on very much the same page with one woman, and then another, happy to steer the ship into a safe harbour.
But I suspect in many ways, the space of Parliament House was too overbearing for us to really revel in the decision-making process the work allows. In a time when so many of us are disillusioned with the state of politics, perhaps we need the corrective of using that space for meaningful discussion and collaboration, and not petty sniping. But as a piece of theatre, in this iteration, the afternoon was little more than an amusement, rather than a shake-up.
Watching Lady Eats Apple (which I reviewed here), I suspect most everyone in the audience has an existing relationship with Hamer Hall – many shows, over many festivals, sitting in those orange seats and staring at the expanse of stage. But for Back to Back Theatre’s production, we are led in to sit on the stage, staring out to where the theatre should be but instead seeing a wall of black. The wall of black collapses into a wall of white, and then the moment when the internal theatre drops away is truly jaw-dropping – suddenly we are able to crane our necks upward to take in the vast array of seats. I’m shocked at how small 2500 seats suddenly looks when, empty, they blur into a smear of orange. And then you notice, far above you, figures dressed in blue – and you realise how large the space really is.
After a story about God’s creation of the world, Lady Eats Apple takes us down into the minutiae of lives today. In this big space, the moment becomes more than just one of smallness and intimacy between the two characters onstage, it becomes a reflection back to the audience of the smallness they so frequently occupy in this theatre. The seats might be sold for different prices; the people who sit in them may hold different power. But in the theatre, as the audience sits in the dark, there is something incredibly democratising in that space. We all disappear, together.
And yet, for a festival about rediscovering your city, for me the most radical and important recontextualisation of space was Touretteshero’s Backstage in Biscuit Land. Staged in the Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse, with the familiar stage lighting and seating bank I’ve experienced many times before, Biscuit Land makes you realise just how wrong we’ve been in understanding theatre spaces.
The stage version of Broadcast from Biscuit Land – which I found a joyous celebration of theatre on the BBC – Backstage in Biscuit Land is a corrective to the state of theatre, while also maintaining its celebration. Jess Thom found herself excluded from theatre spaces because of her verbal and physical Tourettes tics, and felt like she would never return to the theatre again. But she did – this time taking centre stage to talk about Tourettes, arts, and how much she loves cats.
Each show of the season was a ‘relaxed performance’ . This opening up of the work, repeatedly stating anyone is welcome, especially those who may feel out of place in a traditional theatre space – those with tics, or parents with small babies, or those who laugh a bit too loud – is a practical, necessary and important statement for Thom’s own comfort and understanding of the world, but it is also a beautiful gesture to everyone in that space.
There is joy in the knowledge you are spending time in the theatre space with people who, often, would feel unwelcome. There is delight in knowing you can laugh obnoxiously and loudly and no one will care. There is the fact that when two of your friends are pulled up on stage you can pull out your camera – and it will be fine.
Because of course it will be fine. Theatre is about shared space and shared communities, and for those of us who love it we should be sharing that with as many people as possible. Backstage in Biscuit Land is joyous and serious and intelligent and silly all at once, and it reminded me how truly deeply I can love theatre.
Biscuit Land was an important work for Melbourne Festival to program; its presence made the lack of other relaxed performances in the program even more overt. In a program that wanted us to see old spaces anew, I hope the festival is able to hear exactly what Thom was saying. She won’t be back in 2017. For the sake of theatre, let’s hope these relaxed performances are.