Created by Kamarra Bell-Wykes ((Yuggera/Butchulla), Carly Sheppard (Tagalaka), and Small Sound (Quandamooka), it is a self-described ‘motley crew of visionary theatre makers’, ‘hell-bent’ on reimagining what First Nations performance looks, sounds like and does with ‘boundary-pushing’ art.
Every one of their ambitious productions share an interest in psychology – particularly trauma – and a playful post-dramatic style – part-poetry and dance suffuse with wry and often absurd humour.
Malthouse Theatre presents two productions: CHASE and a Whose Gonna Love Em? I Am That I Am. It’s an evocative double-bill, and it shines a well-earned light on this exciting new company.
The first is Whose Gonna Love Em? I Am That I Am staged in Malthouse’s black-box venue, The Tower. The hour-long piece works like an abstract group-therapy session. ‘Take a deep breath and get centred’, a voice-over (writer and director Kamarra Bell-Wykes) commands the three-strong cast, dressed simply in theatre blacks.
What follows resembles a spoken-word poem. Scenes work like a montage of rich, and often confronting poetic images that follow a complex process of self-reflection. Encountering questions of self-determination, intergenerational trauma, incarceration and prejudice, the plotless story moves with impressive pacing and staccato-like rhythms. It’s easy to see why the script was awarded the 2021 Patrick White Playwrights Award; the language is often breath-taking.
But the show needs more development to work as a piece of theatre. Individual elements don’t quite cohere. Live accompaniment from small sounds is an ambient, lofi-like underscoring. Apart from an evocative mid-show electric guitar-heavy flourish, there is little variation in the music. It seems, ultimately, entirely separate from the script and rarely responds to the complex changes in tone, mood and rhythm that distinguishes Bell-Wykes writing.
The performers (Corey Saylor-Brunskill, Maurial Spearim and Maggie Church-Kopp) gel well as an ensemble (though such a poetic performance as this is unforgiving to even occasionally dropped cues and missteps). Moments of unison and physical theatre are magnetic, even if some choreography teeters on the edge of cliché.
Spearim, in particular, provides many of the show’s most affecting moments. Her expressions and physicality were magnetic to behold. In general, the ensemble stare out into the middle distance, representing what I thought was a missed opportunity to engage more with the audience.
In such close-quarters, the intimacy that would have been created from a more concerted breaking of the fourth wall would only benefit the script’s already magnetic and palpably vulnerable writing style.
The next show in this double bill is CHASE, a 70-minute collaboration between Bell-Wykes and Sheppard. It’s a well-earned victory lap for a production that garnered critical acclaim when it first premiered back in 2022.
Chase is the last person in a dystopian world ravaged by bushfires. She’s also the semi-famous influencer behind the vlog, Clap Chasey. In her bunker of Kennard’s Moving Boxes and found objects, living off puree and cat food, her daily vlogs become increasingly surreal, occasionally horrifying and often hilarious.
Sheppard is a revelation; her control of physicality and voice are simply magnetic to watch as she flips effortlessly between Chasey’s imagined supporting characters; a collection of uncanny dolls, duct-taped microphones and Satanic shopping trolleys.
Projections – VR from Devika Bilimoria and edited by Alex Mansell are epic in scale and electrifying to behold – throw various horrific tableaus and Y2K-inspired references onto the enigmatic set. Moving from the smaller Tower venue to the Beckett Theatre downstairs has allowed this production to really lean into its already impressive design.
Set Design from smallsounds is dynamic, toying with dimensions and emphasizing shadow to create the perfect dystopian landscape. Lighting design from Katie Sfetkidis casts hellish reds and firey yellows throughout the space, signaling the tight transitions and tonal shifts in each scene with equally tight transitions that switch from spotlights to general overheads in a way that only makes the set seem more expansive and enigmatic.
But it is Sheppard’s show, really. Not only does she have a tight hold of comedic timing and a dancer’s talent for physical theatre, but her performance thrums with a deep existential heft. There is melancholy and loneliness, sure, but there’s also anger.
There is a terrifying logic to this dystopia; it heaves with the repercussions and baggage of intergenerational trauma and marginalization. Here, on the margins of a world burnt to a crisp, Chase has carved out a space for self-determination.
Her dystopia, in affording her such agency, looks almost utopic. We’re left with something deeply affecting, and politically vital; a glimpse into a future that cannot be separated from the past, nor our immediate and near-dystopian present.
These two ambitious, innovative and rich productions are each a jewel in the crown of this exciting company. The first, we can only hope, of many such efforts to platform them.
Whose Gonna Love ‘Em? I am that i AM | CHASE
Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Season continues to 3 December 2023
Information and Bookings: www.malthousetheatre.com.au
Images: Maggie Church-Kopp, Corey Saylor-Brunskill and Maurial Spearim in Whose Gonna Love ‘Em? I am that i AM – photo by Jacinta Keefe | Carly Sheppard in CHASE – photo by Jacinta Keefe
Review: Guy Webster