Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, 774 ABC Melbourne, August 9th [August 9]

I feel like I’ve seen three different versions of hell in the theatre this week – and two of them literally start with the prefix ‘hel(l)’.

1) ‘Hell House: Provocation, Belief and Morality’ is the latest production from Back to Back Theatre, a Geelong-based ensemble that works with actors with a disability. I saw this show at the Meat Market in North Melbourne last weekend, where Back to Back faithfully staged a community theatre show that is used as a religious ‘propaganda’ tool in the American mid-west to scare teenagers away from choosing to engage in ‘sinful’ activities.

‘Hell House’ is a bit like a ghost train trip, or maybe more a tour of a haunted house, in which you move from room to room, led by an actor dressed as one of the Devil’s minions. In those darkened rooms you watch different staged scenarios that represent what that particular religious community believes are bad or sinful choices in life.

The first takes place in a funeral parlour, where someone has died from pursuing what the Devil’s servant calls a ‘gay lifestyle’, therefore contracting HIV AIDs. The second involves a woman having a simulated abortion, the next is the aftermath of a terrible car accident as a result of drinking and driving, the next is a teenage suicide – you get the picture…

The audience (about 50 people at a time) is led from room to room, watching these re-enactments, with the Devil’s servant giving us a fairly unsubtle lecture each time about how she succeeded in leading this person astray, turning them away from Jesus, and causing their demise.

But importantly, you don’t just watch the show because after each performance, Back to Back held a forum with a different panel of expert guests, each chaired by a different ABC radio presenter, to discuss some of the religious, moral and theatrical issues raised by the Hell House phenomenon. The afternoon I saw it there was a panel of three speakers including an Anglican, a Catholic and a secular Jew – all of whom were in furious agreement in rejecting the moral universe presented by Hell House. (They pointed out its lack of Christian compassion, its mis-reading of the Bible, its weird blaming of absent fathers, etc.)

This is terrible theatre, so bad that many people laughed. The tableaux were old-fashioned, caricaturish, and clearly propagandistic. The performers were a mix of volunteers from Geelong and the Back to Back ensemble performers and although they did a great job in bringing this show to life, they couldn’t make bad theatre into good theatre. The ‘owners’ of Hell House have established rigid rules about its staging and interpretation, so there was literally no room to move for the performers.

It’s important to point out the background to this production. The last Back to Back show was ‘Ganesh Vs the Third Reich’, an original (and critically acclaimed) piece of theatre which turned out to be controversial, in that some members of the Indian community in Melbourne were upset by its storyline and threatened to protest outside the performances at the Malthouse. Some even wanted the right to change the script, some would have liked to have shut it down, and the theatre company had to engage security guards to ensure the performers and the audience’s safety. So Back to Back has had to engage with some very serious questions in recent times about who has the right to have a say about religious matters, and this Hell House production is presumably their answer to those who would seek to shut down art because of religious sensibilties.

Back to Back is one of the country’s most exciting theatre ensembles t the moment. This was tacitly acknowledged by the fact that Bruce Gladwin, Artistic Director, was invited to a dinner in Canberra with Barack Obama when the American President visited Australia recently. They make challenging, provocative, brave, interesting work, and as a result the company is touring the world with their shows.

I love the idea of theatre provoking a conversation. Melbourne has become a town of public conversations, at Festivals, at the Wheeler Centre, the State Library, and with Melbourne Conversations at the Melbourne Town Hall (Melbourne City Council). We just can’t get enough of hearing intelligent debate and discussion about ideas, and it’s surely one of the best things about living in this city.

‘Hell House’ closed last weekend at the Meat Market in North Melbourne.

2) Another version of hell was presented in the play ‘Blood Wedding’ at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank. This is an adaptation of a work by the revered Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca, adapted by Melbourne playwright Raimondo Cortese and directed by Malthouse Theatre’s Artistic Director Marion Potts.

It’s a play about family feuds and loyalties, about passion, and revenge. A young couple in rural Spain persuade their (remaining) parents to allow them to marry, but the bride-to-be is in love with another man, and as you can tell from the play’s title, it doesn’t end well.

The production is performed in both English and Spanish by a cast of local actors from Non English speaking backgrounds and also international actors, including several from Spain and Italy. It is aurally challenging – the dialogue slips seamlessly between languages, and many of the actors, even when they’re speaking English, have strong accents so your ears and your brain have to work very hard to keep up with the dialogue.

But I enjoyed the discomfort zone generated by that challenge because it mirrored the discomfort zone that all the characters are living in, trying to fit their desires into the strait-jacket of this closed and feuding rural Spanish community. This is especially so for the women, who are expected to be obedient and homebound while the men are out working and feuding and – often – killing each other, leaving the women widowed and alone. So this is a kind of living hell represented on stage.

Lorca’s text is intensely poetic, especially in the third act, so you can sit back and let the poetry wash over you. But it’s also intensely emotionally engaging. As the tragedy enfolds it becomes just a matter of when and how, not whether, it will all end in tears.

The designers have created a huge open set with a dusty gravel floor and every now and then it had to be hosed down to reduce the dust raised by performers moving around the space or dancing at the wedding. The walls are lined with big industrial fridges full of bottled water – conveying the parched landscape, and perhaps the parched emotional lives of the characters.

There is a sense of openness and grandeur created by the set, but also by the international cast. It feels like a Melbourne Festival show, or a show you might see anywhere in the world, and it reminds you of the universality of good theatre and the way it can transcend national boundaries. Passion, vengeance, grief – show me a culture where those things don’t consume us, or don’t lead to tragedy, and I’ll eat my hat.

The acting is mostly very strong, especially from Mariola Fuentes as the Mother of the groom who embodied rage and grief. Her character both rails against but in the end endorses this culture’s constraints on women.

‘Blood Wedding’ is on at The Malthouse Theatre at Southbank until August 19th.

3) The third version of hell i’ve seen in the theatre this week is Australian middle class suburban hell, as depicted by ‘Helicopter’, a new play that opened in the MTC’s Lawler Studio last week and that is part of the company’s Education series. This is a new work by the prolific Australian playwright Angela Betzien and directed by Leticia Caceres, who is about to become as Associate Director for the MTC. The play is both very entertaining and very painful to watch, and in the end, kind of annoying.

I would describe this as an issues-packed tragi-comedy. It ticks off a long list of controversial contemporary topics, including; school bullying, helicopter parenting, racism, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, anorexia nervosa, self-medication with pharmaceuticals, the perils of the internet for young people, especially posting inappropriate stuff on YouTube, all packaged up in a story about a middle class Australian family who live next door to a family of African refugee migrants. There is a tragedy involving the death of a child and this leads to the two families becoming involved in each others lives. (I can’t give too much more away without spoiling it).

The best thing about this play is the acting. The cast of five are all very strong but I particularly loved Daniele Farinaci as the anxious self-obsessed mother, and Terry Yeboah as Thomas the African refugee who tries to build bridges between the two families.

It also contains some pretty strong messages about how NOT to bring up your children and how NOT to behave towards traumatized refugees and how ethically dubious our Australian McMansion-worshipping suburban lifestyle can be.

But there’s not much subtlety here. It’s very black humour, very cynical, and in the end you find yourself swinging wildly between wanting to feel sympathetic towards the characters and their hellish lives, and wanting to knock some sense into them. The characters become more like caricatures than three-dimensional human beings.

I’m not sure what student audiences will make of it. There was a lot of laughter on the night I saw it, but at times it felt almost inappropriate, given the plot developments. And I’m afraid I can’t promise you a happy ending with this one.

‘Helicopter’ is on in the Lawler Studio at the MTC Theatre until August 17th.