It starts with a blinding flash of light. As the retinal after-image fades, a man stumbles out before the audience. He seems uncertain as to why he’s there. Addressing the audience like a nervous first time stand-up, or a man cajoled into making a speech against his will, he fumbles over his words or blathers off on tangents. He contradicts himself often and vacillates between attempts at charm and attacks of total neurosis. This is Henry (Matthew Hyde) and if you’re expecting an easy answer to the questions raised by his awkward presence on stage, you’ll need to wait. Nothing becomes clear until the end of his long monologue and perhaps not even then.
Here Lies Henry is the brainchild of Canadian fringe theatre maker Daniel MacIvor and was originally devised in the mid nineties as a solo show which MacIvor performed himself. This version, by a new Sydney company called TurnAround Productions, is the first staging of it in Australia and premiered at last year’s Sydney Fringe Festival.
It is a naked experiment with theatrical form. I feel like a frightful hipster using the word “meta” in a review but discussing Here Lies Henry without it is near impossible. The show is all about being meta. Henry openly struggles to find his purpose on stage. He points out contradictions and untruths in his own speech. He talks to the audience and to the tech operator, at times as if he’s a performer breaking the fourth wall, at times as if everyone in the room is also somehow part of the world of the show and the fourth wall lies somewhere behind you. The unseen tech operator is very much part of the performance, sometimes assisting Henry with music and lighting, other times distorting his voice or caging him in with threatening effects and towering projected images.
MacIvor’s script is chaotic, abstract and at times (one suspects deliberately) frustrating but it does have some very clever moments to it. The story-telling is obfuscatory but the observations on life and psychology are acute. It is heavy on wordplay. Even the title is a pun, pairing the funereal overtones of the phrase Here Lies… – the show features some solid musing on mortality – with lying as in distortion of the truth, and the question of how much any character or story is true or self-consistent.
Hyde gives a fretful kind of energy to Henry, like a man struggling with a particularly aggressive form of ADHD. While it’s hard to fault his performance for intensity and commitment, there are times when it could benefit from being dialed back a notch. Henry is hypnotic to watch, although not particularly relatable or easy to engage with emotionally, and a lighter touch might help here. Still, a little too much is better than too little in a show of this nature and it’s testament to Hyde's stage presence that he commands the audience’s complete attention for 70 minutes.
The show is probably at its best when at its most abstract and philosophical and even if it can leave you feeling a little confused or disaffected in places, there's a lot to be gained from it. Slickly produced and performed with great gusto, it certainly offers Melbourne audiences an intriguing introduction to MacIvor's work.
TurnAround Productions presents
Here Lies Henry
by Daniel MacIvor
Directed by Jason Langley
Venue: TheatreWorks | 14 Acland St, St Kilda VIC
Dates: 22 – 27 Jan 2013
Tickets: $30 – $22
Bookings: 03 9534 3388 | http://www.theatreworks.org.au