One of the things I enjoy most about my gig as a wannabe theatre critic is the sheer variety of shows I get exposed to. I’ve attended lavish, three-hour operas at the State Theatre; a post-theatrical installation at the Malthouse; and countless modest, if no less accomplished, productions, lovingly and intelligently staged in the bared-boned attics and basements and convents and courthouses of the inner-city suburbs. While the quality is at times uneven and not every show is entirely successful, such varied and eclectic fare is testament to the wonderful diversity of Melbourne’s theatre scene, a state of affairs for which we should be thankful and must actively encourage and support.
It is thus with a modicum of shame and embarrassment that I admit to having only just seen my first La Mama production – La Mama, whose entire raison d’être is diversity in the arts, and who I have curiously avoided until now in fear of being underwhelmed. Surrounded on all sides by feature articles proclaiming the company’s good intentions, but scared away by the generally lukewarm reviews, it has taken me over a year of living in Melbourne to finally acquaint myself with one of the city’s most important and long-lasting cultural institutions. In retrospect, I can only regret my initial reluctance to do so. And to think that I considered myself a Melbournian before now.
Based on Deborah Levy’s play of the same name, La Mama’s B-File is a solid piece of socially relevant theatre, imbued here with faintly sardonic humour and real sense of physical energy. Set somewhere behind the scenes at an international airport, where a team of mean-spirited guards taunt and terrorise a steady stream of travellers, the piece is unashamedly critical of authority in even its most menial forms. Played for progressively darker comic effect until the comedy is so black that it’s no longer funny, the guards are nasty pieces of work, lewd, vindictive and increasingly violent. Paolo dos Santos is as slime and Jo Stone is comparable to ice. The travellers sit at the back of the space, disempowered and silent, awaiting humiliation.
They themselves comprise a motley, multicultural crew, isolated by circumstance and even more by language: a Portuguese dancer (Silvia Pinto Coelho); an Australian holidaymaker (Karen Lawrence); a Japanese woman without a passport (Jo Stone). Adrift in a cacophonous melange of languages and failed attempts at communication, which shoulder up against one another to form a rising wall of noise and sometimes deliberate misunderstandings, the characters are not only detained in transit but literally lost in translation. Of course, it is almost inevitable that this clash of words will eventually lead to a clash of bodies, which it does with often impressive results. It is unsurprising to learn that key members of the cast, including director Paulo Castro, have been involved in dance-based theatre, to which B-File comes close at several points and has been thoroughly informed by. Oppressed and oppressive bodies alike gesticulate wildly across the space, the former in an attempt to break free from restraint, as the Japanese traveller attempts to in a show of near-epileptic fear, and the latter in the quasi-sexual fervour generated by their own show of power. Like that of the sadistic fascists of Pasolini’s Salo, the abuse of power by the airport guards is sexually charged: “What do you say when you make love to your husband?” one of them asks the Portuguese woman. “Not ‘make love’,” says the other, edging closer to her. “What does she say when she fucks her husband?” Later, in a moment of violent chaos, one of the guards grabs at the Australian woman’s crotch, keenly and with an open palm. This grotesque dance is performed with all the furious elegance of a body in extremis, inviting comparisons to recent dance-based productions like Honour Bound and apoliticaldance. However, while these productions deal with many of the same issues and ideas as B-File, they do so in less explicitly narrative terms and without the tendency towards satire. Neither approach is better than the other and the targets of the invective remain unchanged.
The production is not perfect, however, and not everything about it works.
Some of the piece’s more abstract moments seem curiously out of place. But as far as it
goes as an introduction to La Mama, I have to say that it's done the trick: I will
be back again, with bells on, and I won’t be waiting a year this time. B-File has converted me. And you always
remember your first.
La Mama presents
Based on text by Deborah Levy
Venue: La Mama | 205 Faraday Street, Carlton
Dates: April 3 - April 14, 2007
Times: Tues and Sun at 6.30pm, Wed - Sat at 8.00pm
Duration: 90 minutes approx.
Bookings: 9347 6142