Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews on 774 ABC Melbourne, June 28th [June 29]

This week i’ve been to see the new show from Circus Oz – ‘From the Ground Up’ – which is on under the Big Top at Birrarung Marr, down beside the Yarra River on the north side. It’s hard to believe that Circus Oz are nearly 35 years old now. The ensemble is using the same basic ingredients that have been there all along – circus skills, rock’n’roll music, theatre, satire, slapstick, clowning – and all with a background of progressive politics. It’s a rough and tumble aesthetic which has been really effective in reaching out simultaneously to child and adult audiences, keeping both groups interested and entertained. Circus Oz are a really important part of the Australian tradition of physical theatre, and have been been touring the world now for three decades. To use an over-used phrase, they have iconic status in our performing arts culture, so its ALWAYS interesting to see what they’ve been up to.

The new show is billed as a tribute to the fact that the company is building a new home for itself in Collingwood (Melbourne), just off Smith St (near the Tote). So the backdrop to the stage (which is ‘in the round’, of course) is a skyline view of the city. The theatrical conceit is that the performers are on some kind of building site. A huge girder is lowered up and down from the ceiling, and performers walk on it, hang from it, roller-blade on it – in fact it reminded me of those famous photos of the workers who built the Empire State Building sitting precariously on the edge of giant girders, eating their packed lunches up in the clouds.

This new show is a bit of a mixed bag. There seem to be quite a few newish performers involved, so I didn’t recognise many faces from previous shows I’ve seen, and i thought the second half of the show was a LOT better than the first half. The first half seemed a bit scattered – too busy, a bit messy, kind of random – there was lots going on on stage but at times you weren’t quite sure where you were meant to be looking. The giant girder came and went and it wasn’t always clear why that was.

Circus Oz has always been really good at creating ‘characters’ out of their performers, individuals with recognizable (exaggerated) traits and many running jokes (i guess this is a key part of clowning) but it took until the second half for this character development to kick in and for us to finally got to know and like the characters; Fantasia Fitness, for example, the strident rollerblading aerobics queen who has trouble standing up on her roller blades and who tells us repeatedly that she’s ‘totes co’ (totally coordinated) and that when she falls over, she ‘meant it, meant it, meant it.’

The music as always was fantastic, performed live by the multi-instrumental musicians who back the whole show, occasionally coming forward to do a star turn on drums or piano or electric guitar. The keyboard player in particular – Ania Reynolds – is phenomenally talented, and there’s a nice visual gag at the beginning of the show with her dressed as the main (piano-playing) character of the film ‘The Piano’.

And the circus skills of the performers were breathtaking – including juggling, tumbling, trapeze acts, sway pole, Chinese pole, rola bola (that’s where someone stands on a wobbly plank balancing on a cylinder, then other objects are added underneath to make it all higher and higher and more and more precarious)

The politics, though, were a bit unclear. There’s a vague theme of celebrating cultural diversity, with an over-simplified and rather stretched metaphor of people as fruit and ‘wouldn’t we prefer to be in a fruit salad rather than a blended smoothie?’ One of the problems with this metaphor, of course, is that smoothies can be quite delicious, so the answer to this rhetorical question is not obvious.

But in the second half of the show the energy levels lifted, the characters came to life, we had some great tumbling and aerial acts to get us all ooh’ing and aah’ing, and it all felt much more cohesive. It was almost as if the first half had no director, and the second half had a really good director. The work is apparently group-devised, so perhaps it just needs some more dramaturgical tweaking in the first half.

Still, ‘From the Ground Up’ is definitely worth seeing, especially for the second half. It’s on under the Big Top at Birrarung Marr until July 15th

A couple of weeks ago i saw a brilliant show at the Footscray Community Arts Centre called ‘Bindjareb Pinjarra’, a West Australian production auspiced by Victoria’s Ilbijerri indigenous theatre company, which was billed as a comedy about an indigenous massacre (!?)

Some of the performers in this show have been touring with it for almost two decades. It started with four performers, and over the years it has been extended to incorporate six performers – three indigenous, three non-indigenous. The show has changed but the essence has remained the same – a braided exploration of three narratives, including: the Pinjarra massacre of an indigenous tribe in West Australian in the 1800s; a young indigenous man living in 21st century Perth who is trying to get to the memorial event for the Pinjarra massacre; and a young white boy lost in the bush who is found by two young indigenous boys.

The show is a mix of comedy and tragedy, using a blend of impro, clowning, personal testimony, verbatim material from historical records, and even rap. Everything is thrown into the mix and somehow it all comes together as a seamless whole that is both wonderfully playful and yet deeply challenging.

Watching the impro sections is a little like watching Theatresports, with the audience being invited to offer story suggestions. So for example, in a scene set in a Centrelink office, audience members got to choose what sort of a mood Geoff Kelso’s Centrelink officer is in today (‘passive aggressive’, the night i saw it) and to decide why the other characters have to be there that day.

There are some brilliant scenes set on a Perth train station, where self-righteous white people try to police other people’s behaviour. It gives a vivid glimpse of what life can be like for young indigenous people in Perth who are subject to casual and at times vindictive racism on a daily basis.

The set is simple but effective, with a backdrop consisting of a beautiful long painting of the waterhole where the Pinjarra massacre took place, and a bare black stage floor on which the performers sometimes chalk indigenous word and names.

It’s hard to pick the stand-out performers, given the overall strength of the ensemble, but Geoff Kelso is an impro star and a great actor with a strong stage presence, and Kelton Pell (The Circuit, One Night the Moon) has charisma to burn.

After the performance that i watched, the actors came out front to answer questions from the audience. ‘We were told to let sleeping dogs lie, with this massacre story, by both blackfellas and whitefellas’, one actor told us. ‘but that’s just what theatre does – we kick them awake’.

This show is neither preachy nor worthy – it is funny, sad, and it asks important questions.
The Melbourne season ended last week at the Footscray Community Arts Centre but it’s bound to come around again so don’t miss it next time!