Left - Edwina Wren. Cover - Simon King. Photos - Daisy Noyes
Poet #7, written by Ben Ellis, directed by Daniel Schlusser, is the second of three shows in FULL TILT’S Winter Season. FULL TILT is an initiative of the Arts Centre, a programme which artistic director Vanessa Pigrum describes as supporting the “brightest, the cheekiest and the most daring independent performance artists from around the country.” With its potential to somewhat bridge the gap between what has become known as the ‘mainstream’ theatre audience and the ‘fringe’ theatre audience, this is a very exciting prospect. Poet #7 is performed in the Blackbox theatre, which is tucked away on the river side of Hamer Hall. It is an intimate and conveniently positioned venue, which for this work sees the audience seated around three sides of the central performance space.
In its beginning the show is quite intriguing. The stage is in darkness, except for the eerie gold and green glow from beneath translucent plastic. The carefully placed lighting of Kimberly Kwa means that just visible are four human figures. One is the body of girl, lying on the floor, the other three are creeping between the plastic objects. One character shifts his weight from one foot to the other so that the floorboards creak. This, the shuffle of the plastic, and the occasional flash of a camera, is all that is heard for a considerable period of time. It is a rather agonising wait for the lights to come on.
The rather bazaar scene with which we are then presented is an entire room covered in plastic. The performers slowly remove these coverings to reveal tables, plastic cartons, and glass tanks which house small and lone animals (plastic and real), test tubes, even a pot plant. Yellow numbered cards, evidence markers, are strategically placed. This room is a laboratory, a home, a hospital and a crime scene. As two of the characters, Mark (Merfyn Owen) and Gillian (Georgina Capper), go about the rather disturbing task of investigating the crime, the other figure, X, (Simon King) moves stealthily between the furniture, perhaps a killer watching the fruits of his labour unfold. There is still no dialogue. There are just two sounds; the unsettling, artificial rustle of plastic; and the steady, homely gurgle of the coffee percolator on a table. Despite its oddities and uncertainties, the scene with which the audience is presented is one of everyday life.
When the first word is finally spoken it does little to appease the sense of intrigue. Instead the work becomes confusing. The narrative is multi-stranded and appears to shift between different time periods. The dead girl, Ella (Edwina Wren), was a librarian and with the investigation into her death comes the discovery of her own sweet love story; Gillian is trying to come to grips with her job of eulogising someone she does not know and whom she has never met; Mark has a pre-occupation with all things American and an overpowering wish to leave his wife for his boss’s daughter; and X is a man who has suffered a mental breakdown in the aftermath of his attempt to deliver a message to a poet (of the play’s title) in a war zone.
In terms of the characters, there is not a great deal more to know about them. Ella is the only character to which Ellis has given endearing qualities. She is an intriguing blend of fragility and cheek, romance and torment and Wren does a fine job of embodying each of these characteristics. That said, King, as X, is given a physically and somewhat emotionally demanding role, and he does well to balance his character’s insanity and building anger.
The primary reason that it is so difficult to follow Poet #7’s characters and plot, is that the audience’s ears are forced to compete with their eyes. While the constructed sounds, designed by Darrin Verhagen, Martin Kay and Nick Van Cuylenburg, contribute greatly to the artificiality of the scene, a characters’ monologues will often overlap that of another character, while other characters are doing something as equally (or even more) interesting. The convergence of all this action means that, for the audience, the blocking out of at least part of the action, and at times all of the action, is unavoidable. For this particular theatre-goer there was a considerable period of time in which she became very concerned with the welfare of the tiny, live, mouse that was housed in one of the glass tanks, so much so that she missed great chunks of the ‘real’ action. Pigrum has promoted this season’s FULL TILT works as those where “the sound and rhythm of the voice are just as important as the words you hear” but in this work, where there are so many competing sounds and voices, there is little room for the words, let alone their meaning, to reach the audience.
Not everyone who views this work will identify with its subject matter or characters. This is the nature of storytelling. In its form, the work is certainly ambitious, but an audience deserves the opportunity to connect with a work and Poet #7 struggles to provide this. That said, from amongst this play’s world, one that is consumed by greed and war, there comes a somewhat interesting and uplifting notion. This is that people and life can, and will be, dissected and investigated, analysed and described, experimented with and confined, but there will always remain love. A line from one character to their lover, giving reason for why they made such a brave move as to denounce the war, suggests that the power of love can explain all manner of human actions, be they sinful or admirable. It was, they say, “because of my love of living in a world where I can love you.” It is one of the more romantic and intriguing lines in this work and yet, through no fault of its own, could so easily have slipped past unnoticed.
FULL TILT at the Arts Centre presents a Daniel Schlusser production
by Ben Ellis
Directed by Daniel Schlusser
Venue: BlackBox Theatre | the Arts Centre
Dates: 11 - 20 Jun 2009
Tickets: $28 - $14
Bookings: Ticketmaster | 1300 136 166