Festival

Despite ongoing issues with the pandemic, this year’s Perth Festival opened with two notable local works. By Humphrey Bower.

Perth Festival

Rachel Arianne Ogle’s production of And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole.
Rachel Arianne Ogle’s production of And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole.
Credit: Emma Fishwick

Despite border closures, venue restrictions and the ineluctable spread of Omicron, the Perth Festival is well under way. Health risks and the absence of key interstate artists meant that five shows were cancelled or postponed, including the free outdoor opening event Escape and WA Opera’s Carmen at WACA Ground, but even so, the opening weekend saw the premiere of two local works.

Yirra Yaakin’s production of David Milroy’s Panawathi Girl at His Majesty’s is set in a fictional town in the Pilbara in 1969. Molly Panawathi Chubb (Lila McGuire) is a politics student returning home to reconnect with her Indigenous heritage – her middle name means “dream girl” in Palyku – and to visit her mother’s grave for the first time. Her white father, Chubb (Peter Docker), a local farmer, has kept all knowledge of Molly’s mother a secret from her – including the whereabouts of her grave.

Her visit is complicated by the arrival of a rodeo show led by racist owner-manager Buckley (Maitland Schnaars), who has some family secrets of his own. The rodeo features a stereotypical “drunken Aboriginal” rider, Billy (Wimiya Woodley), and a slightly dimwitted “virtuous white hero” rider, Knuckles (Gus Noakes).

The plot also includes a visit from a trio of Molly’s student friends – her wannabe protest-singer boyfriend (Chris Isaacs), a hippie-trippy dreamer (Grace Chow) and a drag queen (Manuao TeAotonga) – and a joint election campaign drop-in by Gough Whitlam and John Gorton (Luke Hewitt and Geoff Kelso). Other local characters include Billy’s mother, Pansy (Angelica Lockyear), who is also revealed – no big spoiler here – to be Molly’s still-living mother, and Pansy’s other daughter, Ada (Teresa Rose), who is involved in another interracial romantic subplot with Knuckles.

The uniformly strong cast also appears in different guises in various song-and-dance routines, deftly choreographed by Janine Oxenham. They are joined onstage by a lively band led by musical director Wayne Freer. Bruce McKinven’s impressive set features huge sliding panels that represent the town’s facades and doorways, a suspended moon and a cyclorama displaying blue skies and orange sunsets, warmly lit by Lucy Birkinshaw. Similarly affectionate period costumes designed by Lynn Ferguson convey a sense of time, place, character and genre.

Even as a musical, Panawathi Girl oversimplifies things. Whitlam and Gorton would never have gone on an election campaign tour together and important political and personal differences between them are minimised, perhaps to represent them both as white colonisers. More generally, the writing and staging reduce the setting, characters and plotlines to stereotypes scarcely distinguishable from the rodeo show that the musical critiques.

We never learn how Chubb and Pansy got together or parted, or how Pansy and her daughter were separated; there’s no sense of the impact of this – or her father’s lie that her mother is dead – on Molly, and the family reunion at the end of the play feels forced. The most complex character in the play, Buckley, remains little more than a stage villain, and the issue of his concealed Aboriginality is raised but unexplored. He’s dismissed at the end with the brushoff: “Buckley’s buying!” Similarly, Billy’s dilemma as an Indigenous man playing a racist stereotype in a rodeo is left unresolved: a threatened punch-up between him and Noakes fizzles out and we’re left with a sense of false closure.

Perhaps all this is deliberate and meant to be satirical; if so the feel-good tone of the production doesn’t make that clear. Ultimately the rough edges and loose ends of the script and history are smoothed over instead of being teased out and addressed.

Rachel Arianne Ogle’s And the Earth Will Swallow Them Whole at the State Theatre is a more fully realised work. Created in response to the death of Ogle’s father, it’s a meditation on the processes of dying and grief. The production is appropriately staged in the tomb-like space of the Studio Underground. The audience is seated for the first half of the show on a single row of high chairs along the three sides of the balcony above the studio floor, which is painted black. Surrounded by black curtains, the stage is bare except for concentric, wavering ripples of white markings that look like chalk, and a central rostrum with a grand piano, a laptop and a mixing desk. The space, strikingly lit by Bosco Shaw, is filled with haze and pierced by shafts of light.

The piece begins with the entrance of pianist-composer Gabriella Smart, who plays the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Towards the end of this – which feels like a kind of memory or memento – co-composer-sound designer Luke Smiles joins her on the rostrum and begins to treat the sound of the piano with gentle effects that are remixed and relayed through speakers surrounding the space.

The rostrum slowly slides to the back of the space as the six dancers (Linton Aberle, Imanuel Dado, Storm Helmore, Bethany Reece, Tyrone Robinson and Zee Zunnur) enter beneath us in simple grey pants, matching sleeveless tops and bare feet (elegantly minimalist costume and set design by Bruce McKinven). The music changes to a pounding 5/4 rhythm of electronic noise generated by Smiles as Smart plays a wild piano improvisation.

The dancers move rapidly in contact-improvisation style, twisting, rolling and dragging each other through the space in changing formations with linked arms like a danse macabre. They collapse in a corpse-like heap while Smart reaches into the guts of the piano and plucks the strings, which are distorted by Smiles into growls and shrieks; then they rise and advance in a group diagonally across the floor as the music shifts to dense, electronically treated piano chords and tone clusters. At this point a lifejacket drops from the grid, and they break into scattered movements across the space, tossing and wrestling the lifejacket to and fro.

Finally the dancers exit and re-enter, extending a vast dark-grey silk cloth decorated with pale cloud-like markings to cover the entire floor. Zunnur moves slowly across the surface of the cloth, which, manipulated by the other dancers, ripples and billows around her like a sentient ocean, while Smart and Smiles play a thinned-out and heavily treated reprise of the sonata. The cloud-ocean engulfs Zunnur and the other dancers completely, condensing into something like a huge whale that glides autonomously upstage before melting away and vanishing around the edge of a curtain. It’s a sublime image of surrender to the unknown.

After this, interval comes as a shock. When we re-enter, we are guided downstairs and invited to stand wherever we choose inside an outer circle of stones. At the centre of the space the dancers – now clad in semi-transparent grey sackcloth-like garments over bare flesh and flesh-coloured underclothes – are crouched around Zunnur, who lies supine in similar underclothes. Around them is a low circular wall of scrunched up pieces of black crepe paper. The musicians remain on the rostrum at one end of the space, Smart plucking single piano strings treated and looped into a more meditative modal landscape, while the dancers fold or tear pieces of black paper into shapes and adorn Zunnur’s body, before covering it completely with the remaining paper like a burial mound.

The dancers walk around us, bringing shards of rock and piling them up in a cairn at the foot of the mound. The music resolves into major chords as the dancers crawl one by one into the mound and are absorbed. The musical resolution feels consolatory or even religious, and crawling into the mound seems didactic, whereas everything else is detached from any belief system or need for closure.

That said, Ogle has created a work of beauty and terror, which makes deeply rewarding demands on its audience. 

The Perth Festival continues until March 6.

 

ARTS DIARY

CULTURE Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras

Venues throughout Sydney, until March 6

BALLET Platinum: Ballet at the Quarry

Quarry Amphitheatre, Perth, until March 5

MUSIC Brunswick Music Festival

Venues throughout Melbourne, March 4-14

LITERATURE Adelaide Writers’ Week

Pioneer Women's Memorial Garden, Adelaide, March 5-10

CULTURE Summer Streets

Venues throughout Sydney, March 12

Last Chance

VISUAL ART The Purple House

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, until February 27

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 26, 2022 as "Local heroes".

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Humphrey Bower is an actor and theatre-maker based in Perth.

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