Don't Look Back | dreamthinkspeak

Don't Look Back | dreamthinkspeakLeft photo - Charles Mason. Cover photo - Gideon Mendel

I was thrilled when I learned that the Perth International Arts Festival had in its program a play to be set in an old Treasury Building. I've had previous opportunities to see plays in unusual places like hospitals, churches, museums and even in prisons, but this would be my first time walking through a building of this type. During the last century, many theatre companies and directors, such as the polish Jerzy Grotowski and the Italian Luca Ronconi, decided to take their work out of the traditional theatre, setting them in non-conventional spaces. All of them, in different ways, were driven by an original idea that the French poet, actor and director Antonin Artaud had at the beginning of the last century. Artaud believed it would be necessary to change the traditional structure of the Theatre stage to make the audience more active during the performance. More recently, this type of Theatre has been more widely known by an expression until then used mostly in other Arts: “site-specific”, rightfully meaning that the work takes place in venues adapted from other purposes, not inside a traditional Theatre building.

Since its foundation in 1999 by artistic director Tristan Sharps, the English company dreamthinkspeak, in Perth for the first time with Don't Look Back for this year's Perth International Arts Festival, has chosen to follow the site-specific path. They have been exploring different environments, like a paper factory in Moscow and the old Majestic Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. When a director decides to use the site-specific approach he has two ways to deal with the audience. In the first, the public follows the actors through the setting from the beginning until the end of the play. Alternatively, he can split the audience in small groups, which then watch the performance step by step, room by room, following a time-staggered roster. In Don't Look Back, Sharps has chosen the second approach. Groups were formed by three persons, in my case myself and a very kind and curious couple.

As I wrote before, I was thrilled, but my two fellow group-mates seemed more scared than excited. For us, the performance started five minutes after we were introduced, and five minutes later we were comfortably walking around the old Treasury building, opening and closing doors, trying to find out where to go, and even trying to wake up some actors/characters who seemed to be asleep. I was having fun with the group, and I was enchanted by dreamthinkspeak's beautiful and touching scenarios, but in my understanding that this was still Theatre, something was missing: the text.

The decision to work in a site-specific setting is usually made not just because a director or company wants to try something different. Most of the time it is because someone believes that one text or one play could work better in a place different to a traditional theatre. A young Brazilian director called Antonio Araujo, for exemple, chose to perform a version of “The Book of Job” in a hospital, because it was the place for trying to cure our plagues. In Don't Look Back, Sharps chose not to use a formal text. The actors, most of them Western Australian students, speak just a few, rare words. Therefore, the story inspired by the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, is told through beautiful scenarios and an equally beautiful soundtrack by Max Richter. Such scenarios can be very small, miniatures of a scene we had just seen in natural size in a previous room. Or a black and white film. Or even a room sparkled with hundreds of tea-light candles. These scenarios make the performance powerful, because the images are breathtaking. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the theatrical nature of this performance would become more powerful if a good set of words were added to the right places.

At the end, when my group reached the room where well-known violinist Paul Wright plays beautifully his instrument, somebody said: “what a beautiful building”. The scene, not exactly part of the play, reminded me that even when the play is not good, a site-specific performance allows the audience to at least say “what a beautiful building” about a landmark which, otherwise, would never had been visited. Sharps chose his building in Perth very well. He also did a wonderful job adapting Don't Look Back to the old Treasury site. All the corridors, the stairs and the rooms are perfect for the scenarios he had in mind, and they are very effective in transporting the audience to a “magical, or at least different world”, as someone from the public wrote in the visitor's book that day.

Although I felt that some text or at least a little more words would have enriched it's Theatrical nature, Don't Look Back is a beautiful and powerful performance. Like other plays I've seen in different buildings throughout the world, the audience can love it or can hate it, but will never be indifferent to Sharps' work, and that is something really important in art.

Don’t Look Back

Venue: Old Treasury Building | enter from Cathedral Ave off St Georges Tce
When: Sat 9 Feb – Sun 24 Feb. Performances commence at 5min intervals and limited to 3 people only. Exact start time confirmed when you book. Please check your ticket and arrive 15min before your session starts.
Duration: Approx 1hr no interval
Prices: Standard $60/Friends $50/Conc $55
Bookings: | Festival info 6488 5555

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