Friday, 30 March 2012

Reviews: 'The Disappearances Project' and 'seven kilometres north-east'

version 1.0, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Adelaide College of the Arts, 22 February – 3 March 2012. Devised by Irving Gregory, Paul Prestipino, Yana Taylor and David Williams. Directed by Yana Taylor and David Williams.

30,000 people are reported missing in Australia every year. While most will be found within a few days, some remain unaccounted for for months, years or even, unthinkably, forever.
            Version 1.0’s The Disappearances Project is a meditation on what David Williams, one of the show’s creators, calls ‘the void’. It’s a word drawn from studies of missing persons which describes the sensation, felt by many friends but especially by family members, of being trapped in a state of not-knowing, a kind of grief which does not allow for closure. Instead, there is heartache, bitterness, confusion and, just sometimes, hope.
            The Disappearances Project does not dramatise the stories of missing persons and this is one of its strengths, rejecting the sensationalism which often accompanies media reports of the missing. Although based on accounts of actual cases, the show does not trace the lives of missing persons or explore the outcomes of their disappearances. More revealingly, it tells the stories of those left behind, the mothers and fathers and brothers who live by the phone, often on the edge of hopelessness or mania, unable to help and unable to move on, master players of an unimaginably cruel waiting game.
Two performers – Yana Taylor and Irving Gregory – give voice to the friends and family members of those left behind, much of their dialogue derived from press articles, missing persons literature and interviews conducted by members of the company. Behind them, on a vast projection screen, video shot from the inside of a moving vehicle scrolls continuously. It shows nothing extraordinary – just suburban Australia, its shopfronts and pub windows and parks and street signs, all indistinct in the twilight – and we are left thinking of a family member in despair, fruitlessly combing neighbourhoods further and further afield for any sign of their loved one. Occasionally, tantalisingly, there are glimpses of people, getting out of cars or lingering in office foyers, but we know, just as the occupant of the car knows, that nothing will come of these fleeting, painfully teasing encounters.
The Disappearances Project is a show full of silences and stillness and the overall effect is mesmerising. Taylor and Gregory barely move, most of their heartbreaking and sometimes surprisingly funny testimony delivered from two chairs. Frank Mainoo’s lighting design is outstanding, using highly fluid pools of light to cut through the gloom just as, we might imagine, a phone call or the words of a kind friend might temporarily assuage a family’s sadness. Paul Prestipino’s music, using water sounds throughout to perhaps suggest tears or the harshness of the elements in homelessness, is similarly excellent.
            Impressive, important and moving, The Disappearances Project is proof that Version 1.0 are continuing to make some of Australia’s most essential theatre.  

version 1.0, Adelaide Fringe Festival, Adelaide College of the Arts, 22 February – 4 March 2012. Devised and performed by Kym Vercoe.

‘Sometimes’, writes devisor and performer Kym Vercoe in Seven Kilometres North-East’s program notes, ‘we stumble across something haunting and we can’t let it go.’ SKNE is a theatrical exorcism, Vercoe’s attempt to come to terms with a shocking discovery made on a recent visit to the Balkans, a place she regards as a second home despite the fact it is over 15,000 kilometres away from her backyard in Sydney.

            In 2008, Vercoe stayed at the Vilina Vlas Spa Resort in Visegrad, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Unbeknownst to her, and absent from her Bradt guide to the region, was the fact that the hotel had, in the early 1990s, been used as a concentration and rape camp during the country’s ‘social genocide’ (Vercoe says she prefers this term to the more familiar but euphemistic ‘ethnic cleansing’). 200 women, whose identities remain unreleased, were made to strip and shower before being raped and murdered. Some jumped from the hotel’s second storey to their deaths. Elsewhere, the heritage-listed Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic Bridge, around 500 years old, had been the site of countless more brutal deaths. Such was the volume of blood unleashed, Vercoe tells us, that the bridge was periodically made unpassable. At times, she is unable to finish sentences as the full horror of what she is revealing dawns on her.

            It is difficult to do justice, in this short space, to Vercoe’s intensely individual and highly complex relationship with the Balkans but the fact that SKNE opens as a breezy, travelogue-style love letter to the region, and concludes with a scene of breathtaking poignancy, is perhaps enough to give a flavour of the show’s stunning emotional spectrum. As in all of Version 1.0’s work, it is a heavily mediatised production incorporating projected video and a rich soundscape but at no point is technology allowed to overwhelm the strength of Vercoe’s essentially simply-told narrative.

In this way, Vercoe achieves something that perhaps only the most accomplished travel writers can: making a place seem real to someone who has never been there. I have rarely felt so close to a part of the world so removed from my own experiences, so utterly compelled was I by Vercoe’s intimate tales of drinking coffee alone by the river Drina, of befriending potty-mouthed locals, of learning the differences between regional beers.

It is a show which plays on every sense: at one point, Vercoe makes coffee and hands a cup to an audience member, at others she drags on thrillingly odd-smelling cigarettes. Music is also key, Vercoe being intermittently joined onstage by Bosnian singer Sladjana Hodzic who presents beautiful and evocative songs in her own language. I was also strangely moved by a sequence during which Vercoe dances in sync with a video of a Balkan street performer to an unlikely soundtrack of Aha’s Take On Me, a song which Vercoe explains always lifted her spirits when the weight of the region’s blood-soaked history threatened to overwhelm her.

            SKNE raises difficult questions about history, about people and about place and is as such a deeply political as well as personal work. Vercoe interrogates the concept of thanatourism, also known as dark or grief tourism, an apparently burgeoning industry (there are conferences devoted to it). For years, of course, travellers have been visiting Auschwitz, Nagasaki and Port Arthur but Vercoe introduces us to far more philosophically challenging terrain: what if we are walking on the bodies of the dead without even knowing it? Like Version 1.0’s other Fringe offering, The Disappearances Project, SKNE is a play about silences. In this case, it is the silence of whole communities, rather than individuals or families, that defines the theatrical experience. Silent, too, is the guidebook writer who cannot – or will not – face the past.     

            SKNE may be the performance event of this year’s Fringe. It is impeccably staged and performed, unstintingly honest and profoundly moving. I cannot recommend it enough.  


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