Set on the platform of an underground train station, Underground is a compelling glimpse into the personalities of six commuters as they wait, eat, flirt, read, smoke … and allow their fragile psyches to slowly unravel.
On paper it doesn’t sound all that innovative. Urban alienation is a favourite theme of theatre and dance companies, to the point that it’s almost hackneyed. The concrete jungle can be a lonely place, we’ve been told, over and over. But clichés are based on truth and Underground injects new energy into an old idea.
Beginning with a fast motion sequence reminiscent of speeded up CCTV footge, we are further introduced to our forlorn commuters through a simple dramatic scene, with their casual interplay setting the tone for what follows. As you might expect, they tend to ignore each other; unless somehow forced to do otherwise. For instance, one woman keeps asking for a light: everyone is annoyed by this intrusion and no one responds, even the guy who actually has a cigarette lighter.
What is it about being in a public place that fosters this misanthropy? Perhaps it has to do with the unfriendliness of the space itself, here cleverly evoked by the production design: the coldness of fluorescent lighting, the uncomfortable seats, the ancient snack machines.
The characters are an obnoxious young businessman (Joshua Thompson), a bewildered Asian tourist (Hsin-Ju Chiu), a vain woman with a bunch of flowers (Charmene Yap), a cranky waitress (Alice Hinde), a melancholic arty girl (Kate Harman) and a stoner with a case of the munchies (Kyle Page).
Each of these characters, although a type, is complex enough to be interesting. The Asian tourist, for instance, seems sweet and naïve but has a violent streak. The arty girl presents as a detached cynic but lets her emotions overwhelm her. The businessman, meanwhile, is a predator who will end up being preyed upon. These six performers are certainly as much actors as they are dancers and the depth they bring to the roles elevates Underground to something special.
But it’s the dancing that stuns, its impact enhanced by the startling way it is introduced, just as we’ve become accustomed to the mundane realism of the tableau before us. Suddenly things that should not be happening are happening… The businessman takes the Asian tourist’s hand and caresses himself with it aggressively, although she doesn’t seem to notice. The arty girl approaches the edge of the platform, flirting with death. And then the commuters start kicking each other’s heads around, rolling across the floor, flinging themselves here and there with casual abandon. Is this a dream? A moment of madness? Perhaps it merely represents a world in which dance is the primary means of communication, where thoughts are externalised, where every impulse of the brain is translated into the body.
This style of dance is exhilarating to watch: immensely physical, gutsy and strange. There are moments of supreme athleticism, great rolls and leaps into the air, with the performers showing a particular flair for falling in spectacular and dangerous-looking ways.
They jump over each other, they lean on each other, they push each other’s bodies around as though inconvenienced by them. It’s about alienation, yes, but it’s also about irritation, miscommunication, and even rage. They are compelled to connect but they resent it. Sometimes they are compelled to care about each other, and perhaps they resent that even more.
There are unexpected interludes, like the comic antics of a couple of railway workers. One worker (Thompson) deems the other (Page) insufficiently enthusiastic about their task, and decides to use electricity as a motivational tool; with macabre results. There are eccentric details aplenty, such as a dance atop a coke machine with a chip-shower finale, the revelation of the businessman’s leopard print undies, the Asian tourist’s ill-fated attempts at communication with English phrases scrawled in texta.
Director and choreographer Gavin Webber has created a passionate and intense theatrical experience. It feels contemporary, these characters are people we know, evoking a mood of boredom tinged with dread that is familiar in this era of global panic. Best of all, bleak as Underground may be, it has a sense of humour.
Venue: Salamanca Arts Centre
Dates/Times: Wed 5 Nov to Sat 8 Nov @ 8pm
Matinee: Fri 7 Nov - 11am
Bookings: Theatre Royal Box Office phone: 6233 2299, or www.theatreroyal.com.au
2008 National Tour Dates
Brisbane 8 – 11 October
Lismore 14 – 15 October
Bathurst 18 October
Sydney 22 October – 1 November
Hobart 5 – 8 November
Melbourne 12 – 16 November
Perth 19 – 29 November