REVIEW: Perth Theatre Company | From the Rubble
Tuesday, March 17, 2015
Perth Theatre Company’s world premiere piece From the Rubble is just as ambitious as Walkley Award-winning journalist Sophie McNeill, whose work it was based on. Director Melissa Cantwell and Visual Designer Fleur Elise Noble have pulled together a creative dream team to attempt something quite bold and genre-defying, using McNeill’s reportage from various war-torn and poverty-stricken parts of the world. McNeill’s stories from East Timor, Lebanon, Iraq, Israel, Afghanistan and especially Gaza serve as a jumping off point in this highly visual work that expresses a vague sense of loss, danger, hope and survival.
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Cantwell identifies this work as “impressionistic” in her director’s notes, and as such advises that it “was never intended to be a documentary work – receiving these stories in a different light is the point.” So if you go looking for a linear narrative or a verbatim representation, you will be lost in a world of symbols, metaphors, puppets, projections and paper. There are moments of verbatim content, but they appear sparingly, and don’t offer much of an anchor point. Cantwell urges us to seek out McNeill’s work, her video correspondence, her writing, her field photography, as a separate mode of enquiry into understanding “the other.”
What? She’s given us homework?
Indeed, McNeill’s life as a journalist has been rather extraordinary, and what she documents is even more so. But is it essential to have some general knowledge of her work in order to fully appreciate From the Rubble? I think perhaps it is, and this may be one of the piece’s shortcomings. I can’t help but compare it to a play that was recently brought to Perth from South Africa as part of PIAF, Ubu and the Truth Commission, by Jane Taylor and William Kentridge. That production uses some very similar techniques to explore The Truth and Reconciliation Commission; Taylor and Kentridge employed puppets, projected video “testimony” from actors, and black and white animation just as Cantwell and Noble have done in Rubble.
However, with Ubu, playwright Jane Taylor overlaid the piece with a narrative structure based on Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, and the events alluded to are anchored by verbatim testimony and actual footage interspersed throughout. These served as guideposts for the viewer, the imposed narrative gave the piece some forward motion; these guideposts and a narrative arc are largely missing in Rubble, and we are left wondering whose stories are actually being told. This not only risks stripping victimised people’s identities even further, lumping “the other” into one nebulous category of have-nots, but it also makes it harder for the viewer to form or place empathy.
From the Rubble could almost be categorised an art installation that sometimes becomes theatrical; the vignettes of live action feel too few and far between. There are some stunning moments of surprise, and Noble’s concept is very strong, as is Mei Saraswati and Joe Lui’s collaboration on the music. My best advice for viewers would be to follow Cantwell’s lead: enjoy the impressions and do some homework on your own before or after the show to get the full story.