BURIED CITY, Urban Theatre Projects & Belvoir at Belvoir St Theatre; 6 January-5 February 2012; photos Heidrun Lohr: Hazem Shammas and Valerie Berry; Meyne Wyatt.
THIS IS AN ambitious project, a co-production between two of Sydney's best known theatre generators and one conceived and directed by Alicia Talbot with co-devisors and high calibre performers, Valerie Berry, Perry Keyes, Russell Kiefel, Effie Nkrumah, Hazem Shammas and Meyne Wyatt.
According to the blurb, "this is a big-picture show about a city and society redefining itself. Late one night in the gutted façade of a building primed for redevelopment, a group of security workers, labourers, and a local teenager find themselves haunting the same territory. One by one they rule a line in the sand, and by dawn they’re set for a showdown over who builds the future and who gets to own it."
Either the script and characters have changed quite drastically between the writing of that description and the opening night performance, or I am a monkey's aunty. Contrary to the dynamic sounding precis above, my note – scribbled during the performance – reminded me that: "nothing happens, a bit more nothing happens … even more nothing happens … a fight that isn't a fight happens ... a plastic chair is dismantled …" Then I gave up notes as it was too dull, too fitful and too repetitive to bother. The almost overwhelming impulse during a painfully drawn out hour and 20 minutes was to continually interrupt the "action" with the questions "why?" and "what's the point?"
That point might be found in another announcement in the blurb: "The work is being made in consultation with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) and their Retired Members Association, African Women Australia Inc and Gadigal Information Service Aboriginal Corporation." God help us all, the only organisation missing from this earnest list of worthies is surely the Pymble Ladies Sewing Circle and Terrorist Society, the Feminist Improvising Group and the Bankstown branch of the CWA. What? Why? Hello?
No matter how abstract, stylised, loosely wrapped or farcical a show sets out to be – or turns out to be – it must be underpinned by its own internal logic. This logic can be as crazy and haywire as imagination allows, but it must be there – without it the construction of the play – the text and drama – cannot hold up. There is no logic in Buried City and therefore it falls flat on its face despite the considerable efforts of the talented cast. Each has a moment to shine, but it's intermittent and ultimately lost in the overall blah of a script which is, incredibly, credited to award-winning Raimondo Cortese.
Set and costume designer Mirabelle Wouters has created a richly detailed building site of levels of scaffolding decorated with the scabby detritus of men at work: food wrappings, discarded bottles and odd bits of scavenged furniture; and a demountable office where the unlikely security guard (a petite Effie Nkrumah) watches hours of mindless TV. Taking their own first names, Russell, Perry and Meyne appear to be workers at the site, although why they're there late at night is both absurd and a mystery. Hazem arrives even later with a stranger in tow – Valerie – and they all, in turn, engage in stilted, implausible and desultory exchanges of dialogue. Most of it is an aimless ramble, some is didactic (Jack Mundey and the Green Bans pop up for a moment), even more is inconceivable (why does Valerie hang about? why is she dressed in matching tie dye shorts and top and nifty boxing boots?); while the rest is simply tedious and surely the result of each member of the cast being a "co-devisor" – aka theatre by committee.
The trouble with emulating real life is that real life is very often tedious and aimless, that's why we have editors, playwrights and prefer to watch a well constructed drama – I'm sure I've said this before somewhere, but it remains true. Listening to ordinary people rabbit on about nothing in particular is excruciating. Consequently I spent a good part of the evening in pain.
Perry, also credited as singer-songwriter, occasionally takes up a guitar and sings a song; the others pay no attention but in the run of events, this isn't really surprising. For the rest, the dialogue is so over-burdened with f**k and c**t and their variations that the overall effect is like being whacked over the head with a big stick: after a while one's receptors are totally dulled and whatever force the expletives once had is lost. Again, this might be true to life, but it isn't interesting.
Sound designer and composer Paul Prestipino had Nature on side on opening night – a cracking electrical storm added to his already atmospheric soundscape and for a while it was difficult to know where one began and the other left off. It also added a few FX to the lighting design, by Neil Simpson with Sean Bacon; and ultimately, the creatives had the best of the night. The opening night audience was tepidly enthusiastic: the hardworking performers deserved all the applause that could be mustered, on the other hand, as they brought it on themselves (co-devisors) perhaps not. The constant swigging from bottles of rum and whiskey (CFMEU - hello?) caused a mass bolt for the bar at the end where a woman was overheard saying to a companion, "Well, I'm trying to think of one positive thing I can say about it." Still waiting.
And if you are going, make sure you're not seated towards the front and to the right of the centre block: you'll miss whatever's going on in the demountable, unless you want to get a crook neck.