Slown, Smallened & Son: This Is What’s Happening

John Brack_The Playground_1959_detail

1.

A spotlight. Three bodies: beige, prone. They begin to vibrate, a self-excitation, each with a hand tucked suggestively beneath the pelvis. Then they begin to explore their small circle of light, like motile bacteria or nervous flatworms, around and over one another. Structure emerges. Layers. The bodies stack vertically, vibrations synchronised. Then from simple to complex, the bodies separating, settling into recognisable postural habits, sitting with legs folded to the side, vibrations diminishing.

What happens next, when we’re all sitting here together, like this, legs folded to the side? Caroline Meaden reaches out to William McBride, touches, comforts. Alice Dixon reaches out to Meaden. Then blackout.

2.

Lights up. Caroline Meaden, a solo figure, downstage right. She suggests listlessness and boredom, her arms swaying and head drooping. Whatever life she has is all in her finger. The index finger. The smartphone finger. The finger controls of the figure. The finger gives Meaden her initiative. Her languid body follows in its wake. She pours herself into the finger. Inevitably, the smartphone finger leads her into voyeurism: watching Alice Dixon and William McBride, upstage left, folded together.

3.

Later, McBride lies on his side facing the wall. Dixon and Meaden are on the other side of the room. They’re together in their own spotlight. They begin to move their hips, slow, as if in roadhouse neon, as if wreathed in cigarette smoke. McBride stirs. Then, the blade of a butterfly knife, he is suddenly upright. He mimes running, then mimes sprinting, straining to get across the stage to where the two women stand watching him, swinging their hips. At last he reaches them. Now what? He doesn’t know what to do. And they don’t know what to do. They all twiddle thumbs, stare into the distance, wait, occasionally whisper, nothing.

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Detail detail detail. It’s the detail which fascinates. Consider the subtle emphasis given to the different ways in which the three bodies communicate. Two dancers and a performance maker. A bit different. A bit similar. Detail detail detail.

5.

This is what’s happening now: Dixon slides away from the group, leaving McBride and Meaden. Note the way new areas of the stage are opened in the transition: from scene to scene like liquid poured from one glass to another. We hear traffic sounds and magpies calling – Emah Fox’s sound design. McBride and Meaden address the audience. They describe a grey nomad touring adventure. They discuss caravan kitchen units. They describe life on the road, away from the angst of the city. Meaden and McBride stand with hands on hips, swaying as they talk. Like trees in a light breeze. In the background, against the wall, Alice Dixon thrusts and gyrates; the aggressive snatches of popular dance indicate all that the happy campers left behind.

6.

Dixon and Meaden stand side by side in front of a blue lamp on the floor upstage right. Again, swish, swing, the hips. Step left, then right, right knee out, a shimmy, eenie weenie plie, eenie weenie plie, right knee in. Or something like that. Repeating this brief figure, a dusky charm, they work their way slowly toward the audience. At the bottom of the stage they break off and jog back to the start. They begin again, except that this time they face the audience and dance without the atmospheric blue light. There are variations. The simple figure swells. It moves into something bouncing, playful. At some point, bouncing takes over completely and their dance becomes a sort of complicated hand clapping game. Out of the way, on the other side of the stage, McBride kneels in the shadows.

7.

Then, arise McBride! He moves in slow motion, hands on hips, lumbering toward the women. He frowns, drenched in more blue light: a monstrous intrusion. WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW? Shhhh. Not so loud. This is a quiet monster – perhaps even a lonely monster.

8.

This Is What’s Happening is full of this kind of hushed, understated theatricality. It constantly shapes toward narrative, but never settles into a storytelling. It slips laterally through its many diverse parts – episodes, sketches, extended passages. What is consistent is the atmosphere of unease, albeit unease with a slyly comic inflection. See Alice Dixon, sitting on her knees in a pool of coffee-coloured light, downstage right. It is an office pantomime. She mimes typing, reaching for a file, jiggling in her seat as someone walks by her desk, handing up a report and performing a dozen other activities. She holds up her arms and stares into the light, her palms facing upward, as if to say… What? Why me? What next? Why do I spend my days at the bottom of a cup of coffee, twiddling my thumbs, following my fingers, when I should be out on the hillside with Apollo? Then she is back to typing.

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9.

From moment to moment, the work develops with an organic, instinctive logic; but the dramaturgical focus is always on the workaday world of the office. From Dixon’s pantomime we move to a long piece of text performed in unison by Meaden and McBride. It sounds like verbatim theatre. It has the authentic grain of something lived: a first person description of a typical day spent at an office on or around St Kilda Road. It’s very long, and delivered in a dry, almost sighing monotone. It’s not quite sad. Perhaps wistful? After a few minutes, the pair begin creeping forward, in unison, slowly, as if approaching revelation.

10.

Finally: McBride carries Meaden on his back across the stage to where Dixon is sitting. Again he is moving in slow motion, taking big, lumbering steps. But now the light is yellows and reds, not blue. Now it is not a question of what’s happening but of how it’s happening.

Auden said that poetry is a way of happening. He said it is a mouth, and that-

it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper

Dance, too, is a way of happening. Like poetry, it survives in the place of its making, hidden from executives and supervisors and the rest. It survives in the places where we’re all sitting together, like this, legs to one side, despite wistfulness and exhaustion and work the next morning. It survives in the body, carried forth, into a new light.

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This Is What’s Happening, Tuesday 29 September, Alice Dixon, Caroline Meaden, Will McBride, Emah Fox, Jason Crick and Margaret O’Donohue. Melbourne Fringe Festival, Speakeasy. Northcote Town Hall, 189 High St, Northcote. Photos, S Walker.

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