HUMAN ACTIVITY, KXT on Broadway, 15 September-8 October 2023. Photography by David Hooley: above - Philip Lye and Claudette Clark; below - Katherine Shearer; below again: the private school brats
Hanging high above Angel Place in the heart of Sydney are dozens of empty bird cages. From them are transmitted the magical and melancholic sound of bird calls. The installation, by Michael Thomas Lill, either entrances passers-by or goes unnoticed in the urban hubbub. The calls are from those that once lived in the area before the built environment – and human activity – drove them away.
Beautifully lit by Benjamin Brockman and designed by Soham Apte, a rendering of the installation hangs above the two-level pavement with its steel anti-ram bollards that make the setting for Katie Pollock’s new play, Human Activity. It’s that activity – the unrelated exertions of the city’s pre-Covid hordes – that quickly drowns out the birds. But not before a mound of blankets reveals Jana, a disgruntled homeless woman (Katherine Shearer), who – comically – does not appreciate the avian alarm clock at all.
With neat irony, Pollock places the woman – disheveled and despised by our consumer- and dollar-driven society – at the pivotal centre of the piece. In such a way, however, that she mainly goes unnoticed as she is woven into the strands of story. And as those strands remain heedless of one another. It’s a chilly true portrayal of the city’s daily dwellers.
Like an echo or memory, subtly anchoring and recalibrating the various narratives, is the infamous tragedy of the 2014 Martin Place siege in the Lindt Cafe. It is variously described with all the enthusiasm and inaccuracy of typical eyewitnesses. The event generates a mixture of fear and fascination as it inevitably tips people out of their normal day’s orbit. A flower-seller (Teresa Tate Britten) makes extra cash by gouging those who would place condolence flowers at the scene; another young woman (Madhullikaa Singh) flogs Coke and bottles of water at ten bucks a pop even as she seethes at the injustice of being fired from her job as an aspiring executive.
Out of place and out of time, “Mum” and “Dad” (Philip Lye and Claudette Clark), wander by while on an annual pilgrimage to the city. Their reasons slowly become apparent but their presence is unnoticed until she is offered a seat on the bus by a security guard on his way to work (Atharv Kolhatkar). As with so much of the play, he is not as straightforward as he first seems: a uniform and notebook combine with crisis to reveal a tyrant just busting to get out.
Seemingly observed by masses of luscious flowers ranked in buckets on the upper level, these people and others come and go. Occasionally a mob of pigeons preen and pout, while a bold Cockatoo (Karina Bracken) engages with the humans and relates how she did well in dropped chips from the condolence queue. Also part of that queue and with not a skerrick of understanding other than it’s a cool thing to do is a group of horribly entitled private school brats (Madhullikaa Singh, Mason Phoumirath, Josephine Gazard, and Karina Bracken). The energy and conviction of their behaviour is hilarious and awful.
Humour and wit are laced through the narratives but the somber elements are powerful. Jana meets and tries to help Arti (Trishala Sharma) a young woman on her way to Macquarie Street with $450 in cash. In describing her plight and terror it’s instantly clear that she is not only seeking an abortion but also is embroiled in a relationship of extreme coercive control. Like so many in that position, she believes she’s unable to escape.
Directed by Suzanne Millar, Human Activity is a noisy, vibrant kaleidoscope that’s neatly described by the title. From the sad serenity of the old couple at one end of the spectrum to the bombastic security guard (who could do well to turn down the volume several notches) at the other, the unexpected and unwanted happenings are played out.
At just 85 minutes, the play packs many punches in its portrait of a temporarily beleaguered city. And, of course, it is only temporary: life goes on no matter what. Vivid images remain, however, especially Karina Bracken’s impudent cockatoo and, as the beaten but not broken Jana, Katherine Shearer’s heart-wrenching revelations of why she’s on the street in – of all destinations – Angel Place. Recommended.