Left – Jacqy Phillips, Danielle Catanzariti and Thomas Conroy. Photo – Chris Herzfeld
Land & Sea is a new play by Nicki Bloom; Brink Productions' world premiere of the play at the Queen's Theatre in Adelaide is a culmination of four years of drafts and rewrites, with a couple of workshops involving actors, musicians and designers, so there is no doubt a considerable amount of effort has gone into the production.
What started as conversations between the playwright and director Chris Drummond about 'strange loops' developed into a determination to build a production in the vein of Christoph Marthaler.
The work of Marthaler reflects a fragmented musical dream world concerning existential questions of life that are informed by his particular aesthetic perspective, so it's an ambitious notion to attempt any type of facsimile or cloning of his work.
Marthaler is like a type of theatrical bowerbird who collects fragments of the human existence, unused spaces, remembrances of things and people and then places them into trite ritualistic scores made up of behaviours, music and convention. In a way his work could be likened to listening to atmospheric music while watching activity in a goldfish bowl.
For Brink and Bloom the Queen's Theatre is a perfect launch pad for Land & Sea. Many visceral nooks and crannies in dim light hang in Australia's oldest theatre; it almost whispers mockingly at you as you walk inside its cavernous space and dares you to feel any comfort at all like a wrecked galleon creaking on a reef.
Designer Wendy Todd has draped an enormous tubular curtain created by Jamie Jewell into this vastness, which immediately presents like a mist or cloud or indeed a fishbowl.
The sheer size and rather beautiful shape of this curtain adds an austere atmosphere in an already moody space. Rough golden sand on the floor evokes rugged shores a long way from our own continent and the first 'strange loop' begins under the glow of Geoff Cobham's rich lighting design.
To start us on our journey in true Marthaler form, there is quiet singing and atmospheric music. The content and context is not obvious nor will it be particularly relevant; and here is the first warning for audiences who rely on narrative and context to buoy their enjoyment of theatre. These 'strange loops' would not be strange if they made any sense, so they don't really attempt to.
The audience sit in the three quarter round configuration peering through the curtain and bathe in the atmospheric wash that is Land & Sea. Something like the dream of an adolescent plays out. A girl, Vera (Danielle Catanzariti) is trying to organise food for her father (Rory Walker) and is chastised by Essie (Jacqy Phillips) for not growing up and making it herself.
In the vast space with amplified music, I lost some of the dialogue, but again the symbols of the loop were clearly father daughter relations and a search for eggs. As the experience starts to develop a man (Thomas Conroy) appears in the path of the girl and this moment of potential drama seemed to cause a significant shift in proceedings.
The production failed to reach me at times due to poor choices in the positioning of actors and activities, which in the vastness of the Queen's Theatre was frustrating; watching actors blocking each other is always frustrating and I expect these things will be resolved by the director as the production unrolls.
Some of the most absurdly fascinating material was set quite far back in the space once the glorious curtain had been raised and an old room inside some kind of hotel was opened up. The sightlines into this space were difficult from my position, so again I lost a certain amount of action but I was quite engrossed by the content.
This loop appeared to be alluding to wartime; notions of news delivered over the phone being deadly, and messages avoided at all costs in case they were bringing bad tidings. The loss of family, particularly daughters, and the eating of eggs were all secrets in the dream being played.
Another of Marthaler's recurring theatrical themes is the singing of songs be they opera or redundant pop songs from times past; and Jacqy Phillips delivered a handful through the proceedings in her nostalgic chanteuse style. Phillips' abilities at clowning, busking and conveying deeply felt emotion were a constant highlight and really stood out making her the unequivocal lynchpin of the piece.
The various theatrical elements that have gone into realising this culmination of Bloom and Drummond's desire to evoke Marthaler's work combine as a pastiche but to try and force specific meaning into the work is futile; if I were to return to my analogy of looking into a fishbowl I would add that it is the reflection of one's own face staring back at you reflected on the glass that holds all the answers.
Brink Productions presents
LAND & SEA
by Nicki Bloom
Directed by Chris Drummond
Venue: Queen's Theatre Playhouse Lane & Gilles Arcade, Adelaide
Dates: 12 – 26 May 2012