Black | Malthouse Theatre

BlackPhotos - Jeff Busby

With its spectral bodies and sea of words, all floating about in the chiaroscuro of memory, Anna Tregloan's Black is a difficult work to categorise. Part interpretative dance, part ambient soundscape, with more than a dash of installation art thrown in to taste, the last thing it appears to be is theatrical, at least to the extent that our ideas about theatre are unduly weighed down by stories and characters, not to mention by stages and proscenium arches. Like the recent apoliticaldance, with which it shares numerous admirable characteristics whilst otherwise being almost completely different, Black forgoes the staple forms of what we might for want of a better term call literary theatre in favour of an idiom with an even greater resistance to definition. The result is a work of thematic richness and web-like formal complexity, with contour and content effortlessly segueing into and complementing one another.

Black is very loosely based on the story of Elizabeth Short, a.k.a. The Black Dahlia, whose grisly murder of over fifty years ago not only remains unsolved to this day, but has also rushed headlong into legend. Hacked in half at the waist and left very much for dead in a vacant lot, where she was discovered one morning by a young woman who was out for a relaxing walk, Short - which is to say, what was left of her - soon became the subject of countless conspiracy theories and whispered rumours. As is so often the case with such things, crime became myth became collective phantasm.

It is this collective phantasm behind the story - the idea of Hollywood's grimy underbelly, of paradise inversed - that Black explores and so accurately invokes, not the story itself. Where James Ellroy or Brian De Palma might, with great finesse and considerable talent, retell or represent the story, rolling conspiracies around on the tongue and perhaps even formulating a few of their own, Tregloan seeks instead to distill the dahlia - to isolate the ideas which animate the tale and to realise them in non-narrative terms. 

The Malthouse's Tower Theatre has been divided into three distinct spaces. The first, a passageway, leads down to a small video screen mounted on a wall, across which an audiovisual collage of fragmented images and words unfolds before you turn to your left, out onto an elevated platform, which looks down into the performance space as if upon rats in a maze. The second, down the stairs from this observation deck, is the first and smaller of two rectangular rooms, laid out as if it were a pared-back forensic crime lab. Three tables stand against three of the walls, adorned with surrealist dream objects. These are the curious non-clues of an unsolvable mystery: three books entombed in blocks of ice; photographs of bizarre little salt formations; and a table covered with ornate sugar spoons, which never fail to make this reviewer jump whenever the table, rigged to vibrate at random, suddenly sends the spoons into epileptic convulsions.

The larger of the two rooms, in which the performative (theatrical?) section of the work takes place, is conceived of as a psychosomatic space in which the terrifying vagaries of memory take on a physical form. Time, space, images and words collapse into one another in the soup of the mind, triggering moods, memories, and bodily sensations, as if by the associative logic of a dream. Hence the mutability of the space, and of the ambiguous bodies which inhabit it: fragments of scenes take shape and dissolve, never quite coalescing into something coherent; a man's body, tall and authoritative, appears to be that of a hardboiled detective, but bleeds into that of an unfaithful husband and again into that of a down-and-out drunk; a woman's body is by turns seductive, vulnerable, and corpse-like. The space is littered with and informed by various shared images: the cut, if not the muted monochrome, of the costumes recalls the wardrobe of the immediate post-war period; the careful play of light and shadow recalls the high-contrast expressionism of film noir. The space becomes the physical expression of a repressed collective memory; it is a space of private fears turned shared anxieties, expressed temporally and spatially as live performance. This is theatre. 

It is also ripe terrain for terror: American dream turned noirish nightmare, the past turned crime scene, nostalgia turned vicious. Like David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (perhaps the closest thing to Black this side of Duchamp's Étant donnés, which is saying something when you remember that Duchamp was himself the subject of one of the many conspiracy theories swirling around the bifurcated girl at the time), Black is a kind of memory play, quietly chilling in its revelations. It submerges itself in the Hollywood dream factory and, confirming our worst, unspoken suspicions, reveals it to be an abattoir.


Malthouse Theatre presents
Black


Venue: Tower Theatre | CUB Malthouse
Season: Saturday 17 March – Sunday 1 April 2007
Opening: Saturday 17 March
Performance Times: Tuesdays at 6.30pm, Wednesday – Saturdays at 7.30pm, Sundays at 5pm. Matinees – Saturday 24 February and 10 March at 2.00pm; Thursday 1 & 8 March at 1.00pm.
Tickets: Subscribers free - $10 + booking fee
Bookings: Malthouse Box Office 9685 5111 | www.malthousetheatre.com.au

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