Sombre clouds and a soul-sick mood lie over Melbourne on Friday. The city has tragedy on its mind. In the basement theatre at fortyfivedownstairs, the audience are shadows in a smoke machine mist. Appropriate to the general mood tonight, we are gathered to watch a show about calamity.
DasSHOKU SHAKE!, the latest from Melbourne’s doyenne of butoh, Yumi Umiumare, was inspired by a trip to her home country Japan in the wake of the 2011 earthquake. The feelings after an event of such magnitude must be nigh on inexpressible but if any theatrical form is tailormade to tackle such monstrous topics, it is butoh.
It begins with Umiumare faceless in a suit of aluminium foil, while members of her mixed Japanese and Australian cast crawl on the ground like primitive fish evolving to colonise the land. It maintains that level of strange abstraction. The show follows only the loosest of through lines. Umiumare plays a seeker after some undefined truth on a quest which takes her into the “Land of Shakes”, a chaotic realm which symbolises the tribulations and distractions of modern Japanese life through a series of bizarre set pieces. An extravagantly robed priest preaches consumerism. Spasming businessmen try to stay professional and cheery while their bodies judder uncontrollably. A stripper gyrates with oversized breasts hanging off her body in every direction like those of an ancient fertility goddess. Ventilation ducts dance like charmed serpents.
The only consistent element is dissonance. Happiness is aggressive, sexuality is grotesque, pleasure is tainted and pain revelationary. Any time a character attempts to establish a moment of gravitas or calm they are interrupted, the stage swarmed by a gaggle of manically cute figures in bubble gum colours. Correspondingly, every forced glee this frantic crowd seeks to impose corrupts quickly into something horrible. When ultimately the slate is wiped clean by catastrophe, the moment is almost a salvation.
The cast, which brings local performers together with members of Japanese absurdist troupe Theatre Gumbo and other guest artists from Osaka, performs with exaggerated physicality and unrestrained energy. The costumes are outrageous. The dialogue, jerking from Japanese to English and back, may be heavy with meaning or outright ridiculous.
SHAKE! is relentlessly bizarre and, to be honest, often completely baffling. While the sense of disconcerting instability is undoubtedly deliberate, it does at times make it hard to engage with the show, as there is no sense of natural flow. This may also be partly an effect of how the production was put together, with the Japanese and Australian performers developing their acts separately and seeing what each other was doing only through video on a private YouTube channel.
There is a strong underlying message to it all but it is easily lost in the cacophony. I come out feeling ambivalent and uneasy. Which may, of course, have been Umiumare’s intended reaction. Certainly as I head home across the city, reasserting its Friday night routine of thumping music and raucous inebriation, my mind keeps returning to the shuddering figures on stage, the image of a world in constant shock and agitation which only monumental disaster can give pause to.
Created and Performed by Yumi Umiumare, Theatre Gumbo, local & international guest artists
Dates: 27 Sept to 7 Oct, 2012