I have seen some interesting and slightly disturbing sights at the theatre this year. I have seen necks being viciously snapped, naked men being born out of womb-like pods and heard two of the dirtiest, racist jokes known to man. And then there was Wish, the latest offering from local troupe Night Train Productions, which content wise, manages to be in a class all of its own.
Based on Peter Goldsworthy’s novel of the same name, Wish follows John James (or JJ), a lonely, rotund man-child, who is the only hearing member in his deaf family. Proficient in Australian sign language (or Auslan), he gets a job teaching Auslan to Eliza, the mysterious foster daughter of research scientists Clive and Stella. They meet and fall in love, but here’s the twist: Eliza is a gorilla.
Illegally liberated from a medical research laboratory by Clive and Stella, Eliza lives a virtually human existence; she sleeps with blankets, brushes her teeth and likes having bedtime stories read to her. Her favourite food is asparagus. You (and JJ) could be forgiven for believing she is a human; Clive and Stella certainly do.
But here is the major issue I had with Wish; I didn’t feel anything. This production dabbles with a lot of contentious issues; the experience of deaf people in the community, animal rights, the issue of informed consent, the nature of love and the ethics of who can love in the eyes of the law. Considering this, I feel should have experienced some sort of reaction, be it provocation, confusion, empathy or shock. But I didn’t, and I think it might have something to do with the company’s approach to their work.
Night Train Productions utilise a minimalist, chamber approach to their work. Wish was adapted and directed by Humphrey Bower, who also performed the role of JJ. He was joined by dancer Danielle Micich as Eliza and musician Leon Ewing on guitar. The story is presented to the audience by JJ (Bower) in first person narrative. He punctuates his story with Auslan, so we are welcomed into his world and experience. As he switches between narration and some re-enactment, JJ also plays all other main inhabitants of his world (bar Eliza), including Clive, Stella and his deaf parents. As JJ and everyone else, Bower showed a subtle range and versatility, switching between his various characters with ease.
As Eliza (or Wish as she came to be known), dancer Danielle Micich was physically very convincing and brilliantly observed. Eliza was stubborn, rebellious, even lonely. Performing sans gorilla suit, Micich instead wore a black singlet, tracksuit pants and gloves, which allowed the audience and Micich to connect, both with each other and JJ; what we were essentially seeing is Eliza the quasi-humanoid, which represented how she is perceived by both herself and the people around her.
JJ’s narrative was our predominant way into the action of Wish, and formed the basis of how we interpreted the events; even Eliza had no real voice beyond sign language and the occasional huffed breath. Unfortunately, I found it rather distancing, repetitive in feel and tone and frequently lacking in pace. Bower has a warm and soothing voice, which combined with Ewing’s soft, folksy guitar, Andrew Lake’s moody lighting and symbolic movement sequences resulted in a dreamy, idealistic feel which permeated the re-telling. There were moments of energy, of confronting content, but on the whole, it was a pared back, composed experience that washed over you rather than grabbing and engaging you to the extent that it perhaps should.
Overall, I guffawed at some of the jokes, marveled in Micich’s physicality and admired the ease of the performers in utilising the Auslan. But where I should have been confronted and challenged, I was mildly engaged; where I perhaps should have felt sympathy, empathy or understanding, I felt nothing. If that was Night Train’s objective, then well done, but with a subject matter that controversial, you can’t help but hope that they were aiming for more than that from their audience.
The Blue Room Theatre and Night Train Productions present
based on the novel by Peter Goldsworthy | adapted by Humphrey Bower
Venue: The Blue Room Theatre 53 James St, Northbridge
Dates: 29 March – 16 April 2011
Times: Tues – Sat @ 7pm
Tickets: $25 – $20