The audience are chattering happily as they take their seats on the bus, like school kids going on an excursion. The bus isn’t taking us to a show, however, the bus ride IS the show.
There are two actors onboard, whose conversation is broadcast to the rest of us via loudspeakers. At first their chat seems an offhand conversation about work. The man is a corporate manager who seems lacking in personal connections and eager to prattle about his life to the stranger beside him. The woman is… well we don’t know yet. She’s a mystery.
As a soundtrack swells beneath their conversation, a brooding Spaghetti Western score, we get a hint that something not just mysterious but maybe even sinister might be in play. Then the bus passes an ominous figure on the roadside, garbed more for the Wild West then the Melbourne Docklands, and we know we’re in for something altogether different.
In Passenger, the performance is both inside and outside our theatre on wheels. As the bus wends its way through the backstreets and byways of the Docklands, the conversation turns increasingly sinister, the soundtrack more insistent, and more ominous figures appear on street corners or in empty lots, like harbingers of a coming doom. It begins to seem something malicious is afoot with one of the passengers. Maybe both. Maybe the bus driver too. Even passers by start to look suspect.
One of the interesting things about the show is how it sharpens your awareness to everything you see. Every sight through the window gets imbued with a kind of cinematic potency. Under the painterly light of dusk, the Docklands makes a surprisingly atmospheric backdrop, with the sterile shine of corporate complexes, tourist traps and luxury apartments contrasting with the grit of the working docks and pockets of urban decay. If at first the Western imagery seems like a loose thematic link – the lawlessness of the frontier correlated with corporate non-accountability – it soon finds a deeper resonance. Nicola Gunn’s script, while embedded in the details and concerns of contemporary Victoria, builds toward its climax with the grim implacability of a duellist measuring their ten paces.
Passenger was conceived by Ian Pidd (Snuff Puppets) and Jessica Wilson (Still Awake Still!), both highly adept creators of outdoor art. They began using buses as mobile theatres in pieces for the Big West Festival, in which audience would be driven around a number of installation performances. Passenger, by interweaving performances both on and off the bus, takes this notion up a notch.
Bold in concept and impeccably executed, Passenger is immersive theatre on a whole new level. It delivers in the payoff too, with a final sequence so spectacular it seems almost unreal that you are witnessing it live. The audience are left stunned. For a while after its over we sit in silence, as the bus drives us off into the sunset.
Arts Centre Melbourne and Footscray Community Arts Centre present
A production by Jessica Wilson created with Ian Pidd and Nicola Gunn
Venue: On a bus, departing from: Footscray Community Arts Centre (Thu – Sat) and Arts Centre Melbourne (Sun)
Dates: 23 – 26 March 2017
Bookings: 1300 182 183