A Response: Doublespeak | The Dig Collective
October 14, 2015 § 1 Comment
The Dig Collective is unlike other independent theatre companies in Melbourne. They have a particular blend of avant-garde ‘cool’, Australian irreverence (sometimes referred to as ‘larrikinism’) and a desire to engage in socio-political theatre that is often found wanting in other, more comfortable companies. The manifestation of the latter quality has, until recently, been somewhat obscure though, and Dig’s work has always been more mischievous and derelict than cutting to the quick.
Helmed by Alex Talamo, with a rolling troupe of thespians at her disposal, The Dig Collective confronts modernity by digging, digging, digging, though for what and where, we’re never quite sure. The catch phrase they used to describe themselves in the past (bequeathed to them by Cameron Woodhead, I believe) is zombie vaudeville. Watching their work can be a frenetic, physical and existential experience. Their shows have been at Melbourne White Night, Short and Sweet, MudFest, around campus at the University of Melbourne and Harvest Festival, as well as elsewhere. Their latest show Doublespeak recently played at the Metanoia Theatre (formerly the Brunswick Mechanics Institute) as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival.
Gone are the buckets. Gone are the white faces. Gone are the vagabond clothes, bananas, suitcases and other paraphernalia of modern diaspora that have littered past productions. Gone also is the mess. The tropes of former Dig shows have vanished and in their place is a propeller. Large. Cumbersome. Casting shadows against the theatre’s walls as it slowly spins. The stage is mostly black but these blades cut through the space; first in colour, and then also as they stir light and shade from around the room. It is a methodical, unrelenting spin that generates a feeling of unease and menace, dangerous but also somewhat reassuring. It is reassuring because the propeller was spinning as we entered and it feels as though it will continue to spin long after we have left. It is a constant — even though it also, necessarily, connotes revolution. The more things change the more they stay the same. The wheel of time repeats. Darkness flickers in the corner of your eye.
The mood and pace of this production is set early. It is calculated and clean. It is meditative and yet crackles with a sense of urgency. The silences are loudest of all: in them the production asks, ‘why aren’t you saying anything? However, when people do speak, we reply, ‘you aren’t saying anything’. This is what we will return to throughout the piece: language, content, meaning, change and our inability to communicate. In this opening sequence, where the audience must sit and watch the propeller, I am immediately reminded of three cornerstone theatre theorists and some of their philosophies; first, “I can take any empty space and call it a stage” (Brook, The Empty Space), second, “true theatre…continues to stir up shadows…For theatre as for culture, it remains a question of naming and directing shadow: and the theatre, not confined to a fixed language and form, not only destroys false shadows but prepares the way for a new generation of shadows, around which assembles the true spectacle of life” (Artaud, The Theatre and its Double) and “Art is violent. To be decisive is violet” (Bogart, A Director Prepares — although she goes on to riff on Artaud too). Shadows, silence and violence, these are key to unpacking the ideology at the heart of Doublespeak.
Australia is an island. What is that? What does that signify? We meet our two performers: Michael Fee and Dana McMillan. They love the island, realised here as a tropical paradise. There is a desk centre stage and a large standing lamp stage right. Stage left is a microphone on a stand. Otherwise, the space is empty. It does not feel lacking; it feels balanced. It seems as though what is here is necessary, and no more. The performers indulge themselves on the desk, in isolation, one by one carrying out stereotypical ‘island’ routines; massaging sunscreen into their bodies, drinking from a coconut, wearing swimming trunks and bikinis, sunglasses and so on. The sequence is camp and considered. It is leisurely. Both Fee and McMillan have a peculiar physicality that suggests confidence in their actions. We trust them. They will show us something. This will all make sense eventually. The shadows will stir.
Fee speaks first. In more suitable garb this time — the idea of ‘suitable garb’ in the theatre is somewhat absurd; however, there is certainly something more…‘proper’ about his appearance in a white shirt and dark trousers, than his initial board shorts and Dame Edna sunnies. He tells us a story. Or, at least, he tries. He, speaks, yes speaks, but it’s truncated. Speaks? Yells? Yes, yells. No, wait, shouts. It’s not too loud though. And he repeats. He tells the story of, well, I guess it’s a story about a billboard…no…an election…it’s about him taking a billboard. Not to the election itself, but to an election party. It’s a joke. He’s telling a joke. It’s not funny though. The joke doesn’t work, the joke in the story that is. The joke as he tells it is fine. I guess. Yes, it’s fine. He’s standing in the bright light of the lamp and tells the story of when he thought it funny to bring a billboard of a politician’s face to an election party and then, upon arriving at the party, thought better of it. The election party is like a modern day Don’s Party; although, surely the inner Melbourne youths of which he speaks knew that Abbott would win that election? Anyway, that’s not the point of Doublespeak. What is the point again?
McMillan tries to tell the same story, into the microphone this time. She also struggles. Fee calls her out on it, ‘that’s not what happened…’
Then he interviews her. Sitting at the desk, the two play out a Kafkaesque bureaucratic questionnaire. She tries to answer him; he doesn’t listen. While she is trying to justify and clarify what he is asking, he ploughs on with the rest of the questions, which become increasingly personal. The routine is very amusing, demonstrative and with a certain schadenfreude; how often have we all had to fill out similar documents and been met with a resounding nonresponse, or worse, an automated machine telling us to press various numbers for issues we don’t have — or didn’t know we have until someone mentions it! There is nothing to do but disengage, to lapse into silence.
What is it like to live on an Island? Australia is the largest in the world but due to its vastness we don’t really think of it as such, or do we? Have you ever felt disconnected from the rest of the world? When? The Dig Collective has invited people to call a phone number and leave messages about when they have felt that Australia is an island. They play them for us: stories of September 11, travel and isolation, fill the theatre. There is an undercurrent of loneliness in Doublespeak and it is here that it begins to tie itself to older Dig works. Where once these characters were midnight phantoms on rolling stages, camouflaged in nightmarish vamp, they are now everyday people, doing everyday things and the effect is quite terrifying.
Metaphor and metonym are powerful theatrical tools, but so too is the presentation of reality. With two performers, repetition, and the exploration of ideas in their multiplicities of meanings, there is a Forced Entertainment vibe to the show. The two actors use as little as possible to sustain narrative and then let it go. Tension builds and dissolves. They pick up threads and leave them for the audience to tie together. They come and go, creating new spaces and then allowing them to dissolve. This is drama. The lighting sustains these vignettes and beautifully cordons off a scene: be it liminal, metaphysical or otherwise.
The actors yearn for political engagement and a culture of examining, with a critical eye, socio-economic conditions and paradigms. Instead, they feel as though Australia—the island, the people, here inseparable—are ensconced in boom-times, unaware of hardship or struggle and with constant Orwellian fear mongering rhetoric from the mouths of politicians. Phrases like ‘budget crisis’, ‘stop the boats’, ‘lifters not leaners’ seem to bubble beneath the surface at all times. Their meaninglessness called out when considered. However, there is also a sense that, without these words we have nothing: sadness.
Audio clips from political speeches are strung together in all their catchphrase glory. Chopped and spliced together into gibberish this might mean very little to those unaware of their context. This play is for Australians. Perhaps others could understand the silliness of political doublespeak; however, these phrases take on new meanings given the current situation and hit home most poignantly with those that have grown up in a landscape where leaders are spilled every couple of years based on polls, politicking and propaganda. The audio is balanced with a number of physical sequences from the performers. As the play continues the actors continue to dress up; first the white shirts, then ties and so on. The clothing signifying conservatism—we are reminded of Abbott’s blue tie—but also homogeneity. Both performs are stripped of individuality and are given, essentially, uniforms. They lament their privilege and their inability to act. Their island home does not belong to them, and yet, without it, they are adrift too. Are Australians castaways?
We return throughout the play to the story of election night. It is narrated by each in the form of a continuous but sometimes overlapping monologue. This is the backbone of the piece. Somewhere in here we are to find the meaning of this machine, the inner workings, what makes it tick. Abbott is elected. The company they are with dissolves into slandering the television. The television. These political, educated, privileged people’s only response is to direct their aggression towards an inanimate object displaying the symbol of tyranny. This is an image. The image of Abbott has replaced the reality and everywhere around Australia, unhappy individuals are yelling at screens.
Meanwhile, Abbott is accepting the Prime Ministership. Are we all so frightened of the world that we must yell and scream nothingness at sheets of glass, plastic and wires? The man himself, in flesh and blood, assumes power, while we, the public are reduced to simulacra. The two performers, in their story, are unable to deal with the surreal nature of the situation and break down. McMillan and Fee narrate on either side of the stage as those in the tale confront each other; one takes off clothing and throws them at the other. Any other kind of response seems inadequate, too cerebral, bound by language; this is more primal, instinctive. How do you manifest true anger in a world of shallow words? We have not been taught to communicate only to participate.
We try to speak but we’re not saying anything.
The propeller slowly turns.
The shadows dance.
Michael Fee and Dana McMillan
Arjuna Benson and Athan Vadiakas
AUDIO DESCRIPTION TECHNICIAN
Michael Kelly from MAK-TRACK Audio
15th to 20th September 2015 @ 7pm
Metanoia at The Mechanics Institute, 270 Sydney Road, Brunswick VIC