WTF Brisbane: All That Fall and Solpadeine is my Boyfriend

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WTF is this festival? It gets very little publicity outside Brisbane, but it brings the most innovative contemporary theatre from all over the world to shock, excite and disturb us in ways that we never get from mainstream companies. It’s a rare opportunity that most other cities in Australia will never get, because the companies, although well-known in their own countries, don’t yet have the international reputation to allow for a full Australian tour, although some of them do play at other venues. For the last few years it has fallen to the innovative Brisbane Powerhouse, the most exciting venue for live arts in Brisbane, to bring this collection of short offerings, ranging from circus to puppetry to dance to live drama, available to local audiences.
And they’re responding to it in their hundreds. On the first day of the festival, last Wednesday, even before word of mouth had had an effect, there were solid audiences for the two shows I’ve seen so far, both from Ireland. And they proved one thing at least – that some theatre is universally brilliant, but that some comedy works better in its own milieu than in others.
Samuel Beckett’s All that Fall (pictured above), fresh from last month’s Sydney Festival (to make a liar of me), is one of the most mind-bending productions I’ve ever seen. A radio play, it is rarely performed, but Pan Pan’s interpretation remains true to Beckett’s opinion that “to act it is to kill it”. What they’ve done is run a recording of the text in a darkened space, set with bare wooden rocking chairs on a child’s play-carpet printed like a village map. The audience immediately seeks for a stage or some kind of visual focus, and the first experience is to realise that it’s not there, and never will be. There are lights, some set in a wall, some feeble bulbs low-hanging from the ceiling, but they work intermittently, and much of the recorded text is delivered in the dark.
Like many of Beckett’s plays, this is about everything and nothing, and although you can experience the multi-layered script as tragicomedy, murder mystery or cryptic literary riddle, it’s the medium rather than the message that is the core of this experience, which is about sensory deprivation.
Radio is an auditory experience, and today it tends to be a solitary one, but usually we experience it in a context where we are distracted by other sounds, our visual surroundings or our own movements. Here, although the lights come up and down to illustrate various events in the text, to quote the Blessed Tom Eliot, (our) self-possession gutters; we are really in the dark.
It takes a few minutes to adjust our physical expectations and accept the demands the performance places upon us, and it’s difficult to comprehend all the levels on a single visit. Beckett said that the impact of the piece depends on “the whole thing’s coming out of the dark”, but where does that leave us as audience? Like listening to difficult music for the first time, we are out of our depth, and can only catch snatches of what’s going on in the text, but what a unique and fantastic experience it is, and one that I’m glad I had.
Stephanie Preissner’s monologue is a different bottle of pills altogether, and although it touches on contemporary issues like drug dependency – in her case, Solpadeine, or Panadeine as it’s known in Australia – it doesn’t cut very deeply. We see her justifying her habit, explaining the troubled relationship she has with her boyfriend, the pain of leaving old friends behind and making a new life in Dublin, feeling rejected and lonely. But for whatever reason, she never achieved empathy with the audience, who for the most part responded with a feeble giggle here and there, but never with the belly laughs that, we are assured by the program notes, she elicits from her sell-out audiences in Ireland.
Why this is I cannot explain. It may have had something to do with the sore throat that was obviously afflicting her, or with her lack of energy – although, for a very big girl rolling around on an equally big bean bag, she performed some amazing tricks.
And the text, though aspiring to wit, fell rather with many heavy thuds, because once I’d worked out that it was in rhyming couplets of a kind, the search for rhymes and the even-more-elusive rhythms became a distraction in itself. Very post-modern, of course, but like much post-modernism rather irritating. Nice try, but no cigar, I’d say.
(More WTF reviews next week.)
[box]All That Fall by Samuel Beckett until Sunday 16 February; Solpadeine is my Boyfriend, devised and performed by Stefanie Preissner until Sunday 16 February[/box]

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