Photo - Joanne Saad
One day, notwithstanding the vigour we might now possess, or assert, you and I might well lapse into a social stratum to which we've no particular aspiration. The drooling class. We are all born to die. But it's a living death, perhaps, we fear most.
Kantanka Theatre's Missing The Bus To DJs focusses a penetrating lens on nursing homes; residents, relatives, visitors & staff. The company spent a good six months observing the lives of same. This intensive research has paid dividends, such that the performance authentically documents the humiliating details of outlived usefulness: lost clothes; failed and fading memories; blended food; incontinence; incompetence; masturbation; sexual desperation; deformity; immobility; longing for touch; cavalier 'care'; isolation; deprivation; indignity.
Here is the teapot without the cosy, a naked exposition of later life.
Anyone who's ever spent any time in a nursing home will recognise the tenor and content of pointless conversations, the rants and ravings, the cacophony and conspiracy of sinister silence, the stench of death and urine, to say nothing of the rekindled innocence of advanced years.
There is something in the behavioural chaos and high emotion of 'inmates' which puts me in mind of Paul Haggis' 2004 Best Picture winner, Crash, which opens with these words: 'It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.' Even conflict in nursing homes can seem like it masks a longing for contact.
As the opening night audience filed in, it became aware of an old woman, covered with a granny rug, lying absolutely still, mouth fixed, agape. She is wheeled away. Presumably, for the longest nanna nap of all.
The Performance Space, in its capacious, spacious home at Carriageworks, has nothing if not, well, performance space. A broad, deep stage has been utilised evocatively indeed, by director and designer, Carlos Gomes, who has succeeded in making this so much more than a mere play. It is enriched with projections, shifting soundscapes, dance & music. And a very fine, evenly matched cast; physically, dramatically and comedically adept. It's the sort of performance in which you'll find yourself smiling & laughing out loud, while wondering if it's appropriate.
Is it funny? Or tragic? It's imbued with poignancy and poetry and succeeds on every level, not least in capturing the complexity of the human condition in relation to aging and deterioration. It's a delicate balance which could so easily have toppled, like nanna and her Zimmer-frame. Instead, it triumphs.
The set embodies exemplary graphic design, and creates a suitably & recognisably spartan, clinical aesthetic. The performers and 'devisors' have collaborated and contributed, too. One gets a palpable sense of an intensively workshopped, level playing-field theatrical communalism, challenging the notion of director as god.
Early on, with the cast scattered across the stage, we hear recitals of glossy brochure copy: of lush and lovely gardens, superlative standards of care, shiny, sterile surfaces and more. Wouldn't you want grandpa to shuffle off there?
We hear the mantra of one man, lost in his repetitive reverie. 'What are we doing this afternoon? Swimming?! I love swimming. Whoosh!' The man who clings to a picture of his mother, lost to the past. The despair & devastation of his wife, who brings him chocolates. An angry Greek man, defiantly hanging on to his marbles (in more ways than one) & manhood. The sweet, petite old dear who shuffles on, sweetly, to a fast-tempo jazz track, dressed to the nines (including, appropriately, a herringbone jacket); who takes, day in, day out, to an old bus stop bench. 'I think the buses are on strike today', the compassionate nurse lies. 'How about a cup of tea?' The lipsticked ladies carefully examining a plastic flower, speculating on its botanical identity.
A standout vignette is a veritable soliloquy by a stooped, childless Greek woman. 'What's the point having children? The woman upstairs has five, and not one visits.' She converses with an invisible guest, much like Jacob wrestling with his conscience. Suddenly, an accordionist enters and she is reborn, as a young woman, revelling in romance and freedom of movement. It's inspirational, uplifting and terminally tragic, arguably eclipsing quite a number of other finely measured scenes. With additional text from the like of Simone de Beauvoir, Lina Kastoumis and Liam Wallington, the performance sears and soars, with no unwarranted sentimentality.
Yes, there are one or two technical flaws. But this was opening night and that's allowed. Besides, they were so minor as to be almost imperceptible and were certainly overwhelmed in the transcendent scheme of things. There were also one or two ideas that murmured self-indulgence and dragged a little but, again, the threat to the integrity of the production was transitory.
Even ardent and uncompromising advocates of euthanasia would, surely, have to be humbled by the deceptively innocuous fun in reassembling the cast, in closing, to the tune of Iggy Pop's relentless Lust For Life. Ironic, perhaps. Even cruelly so. But instead it tends to have the effect of showing that deep inside these twisted, amoebically shapeless, these shadows of former selves, lies, in many cases, an undiminished vigour and vitality, just dying to get out and about again. Or perhaps yours would be a more transcendental take: that this vitality is about to be released and reborn.
There is potency in this piece, inasmuch as it's impossible to sit through it and fail to wonder, 'is this the me to come?'
It's fitting the last, eloquent words should go to Kantanka principal, Gomes, whose inspiration for this work was his own grandfather. 'Most of the verbal text in this work is from those people we met in facilities we visited. The words carry the richness of those realities to us, the observers. If you've spent any time at an aged care facility you may recognise the particular quality of time in such places. In this work, we have had to struggle with the representation of time and have had to surrender to it, in the same way life itself surrenders to time.'
Valerie Berry, Rosie Lalevich, Phillip Mills, Arky Michael, Katia Molino and Kim Vercoe all exhibit the utmost skill, versatility and commitment. And the work wouldn't be the same at all without the extra dimensions Joanne Saad (video artist & photographer) & Nick Wishart (sound artist) have lent it. Judicious editing by Fadia Aboud has been instrumental in the success of audiovisual components, too. As has Felix Warmuth's expert operation. And Sydney Bouhaniche's lighting and visuals can hardly be overestimated; especially his clever use of shadow and sympathetic deployment, by turns, of cold, hard & soft, warm lighting. I struggle to think of a production where all its parts are valid and valuable: nothing is disappointing or dispensible here. They've done their homework (plaudits to dramaturgical consultant, Annette Tesoriero). But more importantly, they've translated reality into a viable, believable, dramatic and compelling theatrical work.
All in all, you will be a recalcitrant and remiss theatregoer indeed if you fail to avail yourself of the opportunity to see what I'm sure will prove to be one of the in-the-know picks of 2009. The tragedy is not in the telling of old people's stories, it's in the fact this was such a short season: it closed Saturday. But it opens the window, widely, on aging. Wrap yourself in your best shawl and carry yourself down to Carriageworks. For your own sake, don't miss the bus.
Theatre Kantanka presents
Missing The Bus To David Jones
Venue: Performance Space | Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh
Dates: Wed 21 – Sat 24 Oct
Times: 8pm + 4pm Sat 24 Oct
Bookings: Ticketmaster.com.au | 1300 723 038