Last Saturday night at 9 o’clock I made my way out to the Midland Railway Workshops to see The Silo, created and performed by Pippa Bainbridge and her collaborators as part of Fringe World.
For readers who don’t live in Perth: Midland is at the end of the suburban train line on the eastern edge of the metropolitan area. In fact Midland Station is where the Kalgoorlie Prospector leaves twice a day to cut through the Perth hills and cross the wheat-belt to the goldfields – one of my favourite journeys if you’ve got a day to spare each way.
Originally Midland Junction was a railway town, and the workshops were the centre of industrial activity. Now it’s a pretty desolate place: the Great Eastern Highway runs through the centre of town, what commercial or community life there is has shifted across the railway line to Midland Gate Shopping Centre, and the workshops themselves closed down in the 90s and are now a haunting collection of ruins on a vast site which is currently being redeveloped by the State Government.
The Powerhouse is a vast cathedral-like space with a dirt floor and a magnificent jarrah roof. Silo was staged in one corner against a hulking pile of machinery, with a rusted sheet of corrugated iron punctured by stage lights as a backdrop, and a ladder leading up to dark mezzanine balcony. Melancholy ambient pre-recorded soundscape played intermittently throughout.
We sat in a single row of seats while Pippa clambered around the machinery and recited a story based on her childhood growing up in the wheat-belt town of Wongan Hills. The story concerned the mysterious disappearance of a neighbourhood child (whose body ended up being found in a wheat silo), but the language focused primarily on setting rather than character or plot – or rather, on the character and story of the landscape itself, its geography and history, and especially its devastation by unsustainable land-clearing and farming, interwoven with Noongar dreaming stories about the giant snake called Wagyl who created the waterways and landforms in the South-West.
In such an overwhelming space, and with such evocative words, I found myself wanting more – or perhaps less – than what was essentially a recitation of the story, eloquent as it was. Indeed, I began to imagine engaging with both real and imaginary settings in other, perhaps more imaginative ways.
Perhaps Silo will ultimately find its form as a site-specific installation rather than a solo storytelling performance. Meanwhile, I was happy to make the journey out to Midland on a starry summer night, and be reminded of where I live, in all its sadness and beauty.
On Tuesday night I was back at PICA for the opening of two shows in the Summer Nights season: The Night Guardian by local emerging playwright Jessica Messenger and Dogmeat (pictured above, image by Sarah Walker) by Melbourne company MKA.
The Night Guardian is essentially an onstage super-hero comic book (or graphic novel if you prefer). The Night Guardian herself is a girl with the psychic power to basically make people blind, along with the usual repertoire of martial arts prowess common to all masked, caped or costumed crusaders. It’s a nice twist given her own ‘blindness’ to the evil government forces that control and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Like most superheroes she’s also been cruelly separated from her parents and raised by mysterious and manipulative mentors.
Dialogue is scripted and spoken as if uttered in speech-bubbles, knowingly clichéd and even witty (though not in the Joss Whedon class); characters are similarly cut from standard cloth but with original quirks; the plot is nicely if conventionally shaped and appropriately both risible and engaging; and the setting – evoked by an essentially cardboard cut-out set design, moodily coloured lighting and soundtrack – is the usual post-contemporary yet strangely retro megalopolis we’re familiar with from Batman to Blade Runner (still the finest original cinematic comic for grown-ups in my book, and explicitly referenced in The Night Guardian with the aid of some strategically placed origami).
The performances of Ellen O’Connor and Nick Maclaine as (anti-)heroine and (anti-)hero at least give some life and nuance to the stereotypes they’re called upon to inhabit. I enjoyed their onstage sparring and chemistry, O’Connor’s genuine sense of inner struggle, and Maclaine’s comic timing and natural energy.
None of this however manages to raise the play about the level of pastiche. Ultimately I wasn’t sure of the point, or more perhaps more crucially the tone. If it’d been an out-and-out send-up I wouldn’t have needed a point, but the sheer length and intricacy of proceedings kept making me feel like more was supposed to be at stake.
And so at last (but by no means least) to MKA’s Dogmeat.
MKA are a Melbourne-based company focused on playwriting and playwrights. As I write that sentence I’m struck by the divergent spelling and connotations of those two words. A playwright is someone who makes plays in the sense that a wheelwright or cartwright is someone who makes wheels or carts (from the chunky Old English word wrychta, meaning someone who works or shapes something in wood – although the world is also a pleasing homonym for the modern English ‘writer’). In other words, a play’s a thing that’s manufactured and has a practical function. It’s made well or badly; it works or it doesn’t. ‘Playwriting’ on the other hand suggests a more rarified activity involving a pen or a keyboard to compose something that has an almost immaterial or virtual existence on a page or a screen.
There’s nothing rarified, immaterial or virtual about Dogmeat or the work of MKA.
There are six discernible characters: ‘Dogmeat’, a child who is chained up on the street outside his home in his underwear, feeds from a metal dish and barely speaks; his parents, who have moved from the country to the city for work (dad drives a taxi) and whose other child has been abducted; two local youths called Coyote and Lucky (played by the same actors as the parents) who finger-fuck dead dogs, sniff aerosol cans and hatch get-rich-quick schemes (one of which somehow involves liberating Dogmeat from his chain); and a mysterious well-dressed man who talks to the audience about beating and killing his pet dog (and is possibly a child rapist and killer).
Dogmeat is written (or should I say manufactured?) by MKA’s creative director Tobias Manderson-Galvin and (in this iteration) directed by co-creative director John Kachoyan and performed by a cast of four who go unmentioned in publicity or on the company website. It’s notable that MKA doesn’t promote or fetishize actors in the same way it promotes and unrepentantly fetishizes playwrights, while lighting, costume, set or sound designers also go unmentioned (all are excellent, as are the performances, especially Devon Lang Wilton and Manderson-Galvin himself).
If MKA defiantly foregrounds playwrights rather than auteur-directors, designers or even actors, their plays are a far cry from the more cerebral, talking-head or naturalistic post-WW2 Anglo-Australian tradition from Lawler to Williamson – or the English repertory writing and performance style that gave rise to it and still dominates our main stages. If anything, Dogmeat has more in common with a more baroque, corporeal, even visceral Australian counter-tradition that includes Patrick White, Jack Hibbard and other work at the erstwhile Pram Factory or La Mama in Melbourne, especially in the 70s.
It’s darkly comic, ugly, cynical, anarchic, violent, sexually-charged and in-your-face. The fusion of sex and violence makes it an essentially sadistic world in which all relationships – friendship, family, age, gender, sexuality, culture, work and class – are permeated by power. Plot is fragmented and episodic; language and acting are heightened; characters are brutalized. The social-historical setting is an undefined but liminal zone on the border between urban and rural (or notionally ‘civilized’ and ‘primitive’) forms of existence. It could be anywhere, anytime; but implicitly, like all strong theatre, it’s here, now.
Interestingly, like Silo and Night Guardian, the action of Dog Meat takes place in an essentially Gothic landscape: a revival of a revival, so to speak, of medieval tropes for a New Dark Age. Like them, too, it revolves around the recurrent Australian theme of lost, abused or abandoned children.
It’s strong meat, and not for the faint-hearted, or those expecting narrative or meaning to be delivered to them on a plate. For myself, I had the thrilling and quintessentially theatrical experience of being on the edge of my seat, continually not knowing what was going to happen next.
Featured image by Sarah Walker