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The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest

As published in Laneway.

Twelve Restless performers are confronted with twelve Rawcus performers, fully-able bodies with those with disabilities of different level and quality, in this fascinating exploration of the mystery of the other. Program notes quote from Kafka:

When you stand in front of me and look at me,
What do you know of the griefs that are in me
And what do I know of yours?

The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest opens with a loop of beautiful live music: guitar, piano, pan flute, cello. I’ve often noted that the fusion of genres in Australian theatre happens less between theatre, performance and dance, and more often with visual arts, music, and puppetry. That is, rather than eschewing dramatic narration for rebellious deconstruction, it engages in a sensuous tickle of all the senses, a total experience. This process usually creates, like in this case, lyrical theatre, stage poetry (as Maeterlinck demanded: “la pièce de théâtre dout être avant tout un poème”), in which the linear time of ascending action is replaced by slowly accumulating image-time, what Gertrude Stein would have approvingly called theatre as landscape.

Some of the most successful Australian theatre of recent times meticulously researched the possibilities of this approach, from My Darling Patricia’s Politely Savage and Peepshow Inc.’s Slanting Into the Void, to Vitalstatistix’s Cake (it is not surprising, therefore, that a number of names overlap in the credits of these shows). To analyse The Heart of Another with an analytical mind, thus, may be doing it great disservice.

There are moments in this performance of terrifying human beauty. More terrifying because resolutely silent - by which I don’t mean that speech isn’t present, merely that the words don’t amount to a statement, explanation, or challenge. They remain a part of the stage poetry.

Right at the beginning, all performers assemble on stage, merely breathing until they slowly smile. The variety of persons, of bodies, is astonishing - the sparse means of physical theatre work extraordinarily well at showing the individual beauty of each one of this enormous, diverse ensemble. Where will they all go?, you wonder. How will they all move? Where will this dense human mass disperse? It does and doesn’t: despite choreographic skill at emptying and populating the stage, The Heart of Another seemingly keeps the theatre densely upholstered, filled to the brim, with thick emotions, with faces, costumes, movement, but most crucially with objects.

A man is back-lit behind a life-size child drawing of a man. A woman cuts out a red heart in the paper, and through the hole starts pulling out a red scarf, a paper chain of little girls, toy animals, which another man gives to a girl, who assembles the lot in a wooden box. A mass of people unfolding a silk scarf, each with their own little assemblages: a collection of chocolate coins, or plastic roses and a plastic wedding cake. Someone’s memories, someone’s very private mementos. A girl puts words in a sequence of glass jars; another listens inside each one. Even the backstage is used to reveal a dark, private space behind the representational space at the front. At different times, the performance is counterpointed by a romantic duet, or a solo in dark sfumato.

On the one hand, it is a performance firmly situated in this world, latching onto an endless array of objects and gestures and relations and characters. At the same time, by refusing any response to this world apart from the hermetically, solipsistically intimist, it is a dance of deep, almost painful privacy. Using semi-abled performers, by definition a quiet part of our society - indeed, any society - underpins this sensuous introspection.

At multiple points, perhaps because of the opening quote, I was reminded of Kafka’s love letters to Milena Jesenska, among the most painfully intimate love correspondences of all times. There is more than a flimsy connection of this barely un-symbolist theatre to the love-letter format, with its own solipsism, planar non-narrative time, and an alchemist power to turn awkwardness, unease, fear and disgust into heavy, difficult and intensely private beauty. Instead of judging, we are led to feel. As a way of approaching the problem of able-bodiedness, this is not unintelligent. Everything in The Heart of Another is heart-breakingly beautiful in silence: loneliness, desire, the inability to connect, the girls and the boys. Members of the Rawcus ensemble seemed unaware of how much admiration they incited: the foyer buzzed with excited whispers on the beauty of particular girls.

There are, however, problems for the analytical mind. Keeping in mind that Australia is a resolutely mute culture in many aspects, that much of its best dramatic writing explores the poetic rhythms of non-communication and non-discussion (eg, Holloway’s harrowing Red Sky Morning), its predilection both for physical theatre and for ‘theatre as a poem’ becomes problematic, politically problematic.

Aesthetically, the silence of objects and people makes for very intense theatre. But, in a rich yet delicate landscape of visual effects within The Heart of Another, every object, motion and gesture resounds with what is left unsaid. The moment in which girls, all the girls, one by one join in a group homogeneous movement, although some simply cannot do it properly, struck me as somewhat aloof. In another, a man with speech impediments reads on the back stage - stirring too many memories of war orphans forced to pose at anti-war rallies, of that banal exploitation of someone’s misery for some quick, cheap compassion.

The wallpaper, framing the entire set in a florally geometric, patterned repetition of the same, may have been intended only as decoration - indeed, I commonly see Victorian wallpaper in Australian performances. It is, however, present as an unconscious atavism, a constant reminder of the oppressive, bourgeois structures that sent us all here. It was a society that created textile printing, the industrial, regimented repetition of geometrically restrained, prettified nature. So we have it: the imperative of pleasant decoration, the imperative of sameness, and in the middle of it all, elementary human wonder dancing. The effect is incongruous, raising more questions than it placates with silence. Are we watching prettified disability? Does it need to come with lush music to keep us calm? Are we refusing to think? These are just some of the nagging questions in the back of my mind. To every such political problem that arises, the answer seems to be to smother it indulgently in beautiful décor.

In targeting the body first and the mind later, there is always the danger of abandoning problems half-way through; of not allowing the audience to see clearly, and of choosing the pretty option over the less aesthetically rounded. This can happen even if there is no intention of glossing over. It happened in Cake, with its cheap conflation of baking, pregnancy and femininity; it happened in Politely Savage, with its ornate orientalization of Australia, the 1950s, and the housewife. The entire subtext of Kafka’s love letters is that of a deeply unhappy existence. Many unpleasant things may have been pushed aside in The Heart of Another in order to please the senses, but we may only realise later.

Melbourne Fringe Festival. The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest, by Rawcus ensemble and Restless Dance Company. Directed by Kate Sulan and Ingrid Voorendt. Set design: Emily Barrie. Lighting design: Richard Vabre. Sound design: Jethro Woodward. Music: Zoe Barry. Dancehouse, September 24-28.


( 7 comments — Leave a comment )
Oct. 6th, 2008 10:18 am (UTC)
Great review, Jana. One thought: the wallpaper may be more interesting than you suggest. It may well be, as you suggest, merely an "unconscious atavism" and a reflection of bourgeois oppression; but if it was an allusion to William Morris, who was responsible for this design tradition, it plugs into an interesting radicalism - Morris was a writer and designer who was one of England's first socialists, working with Marx and Engels. Although he later broke with the revolutionary movement, perhaps the connection was in their mutual belief in the alienation of modern labour. This may or may not be relevant, but it played in my thoughts anyway...
Oct. 6th, 2008 03:30 pm (UTC)
Now that's an interesting thought.
I am currently writing on the strong tension in the heart of urbanism/architecture between visionary radicalism and bureaucratic pragmatism, stronger than perhaps in any other field of human endeavour. Garden Cities are the perfect example of an idea for fully-fledged social evolution, than turned into nothing better than urban sprawl. And we know where that has gotten us. Morris was a part of the same wave of thinking. We could go all radical now and talk about another enlightened idea, that of childhood, and then talk about a certain Henson guy.

Now, even more interestingly, Arts and Crafts in England was parallel to Secession in Austria, both related to symbolism, which spawned first lyrical theatre. The Maeterlinck connection. And Secession, more overtly, but also Arts and Crafts, reached the glory they have precisely because of their comforting alignment with some very indulgent, middle-to-upper-middle (in the case of Vienna), ideals of simple, self-justified sensuousness, of decorative, naturally justified stability, and of frolicking unity with the world (more on the socially stable side in England, more esoterically hermetic in Austria). It is pedagogic to watch how radicalism enters mainstream, what completely anachronistic, conservative buttons it sometimes unconsciously pushes.

William Morris also, mind you, directly inspired the very first prefabricated, mass-produced house in the world, the still-unmatched California Bungalow. And let's not even get started on Bauhaus and how well they have fought alienation of the modern man.

The deep content of what makes popular radicalism popular may be strongly conservative. In Vienna, it was certainly the gold leaf, not the disturbingly deformed nude bodies underneath. In England, I would argue the comforting image of the family cottage, not the dissolution of social bonds. In The Heart of Another, perhaps, the prettiness, rather than the cry for diversity.
Oct. 6th, 2008 03:50 pm (UTC)
Re: Now that's an interesting thought.
Well, I agree with you about the decoration. It worried me too; it made me feel that something important was being obscured or smudged, and was part of that insistence on its own emotional integrity that bothered me.

However, I still have a deep sympathy with Morris's (and Marx's) insistence that work ought to have lived meaning, and that capitalism was a key factor in alienating labour from life. There is a strong aesthetic argument in Marx's thoughts connected to labour and living that is often forgotten. but which is crucial to his criticism of capitalism...The Morris/Marx connection is the kind of reflection that makes me think of the connection between "conservatism" and "conservation", one of the destablising factors at work behind the accepted binaries of right and left, conservative and radical (there are others - people like Bush and Howard have in fact been totally radical). Also, yes, Bauhaus as Bauhaus is beautiful, but what it turned into, via Le Courbousier, was the kind of alienated housing projects that are currently being exploded all over Europe because they caused so many social problems.

I'm not sure that these reflections have anything to do with the show, though...except that I ultimately felt that the aesthetic wasn't thought through, beyond the creation of a certain sensual beauty. Which felt kinda problematic.
Oct. 6th, 2008 04:35 pm (UTC)
Re: Now that's an interesting thought.
Now, alienated labour is something Bel explores very, very well. Maybe that's why we both like his work so much. I am a bit wary of starting this conversation, because I may be much too young for my Marxist views (and this is why). But a lot of physical theatre is quite oblivious to its own complicity in hyper-modernity, not to mention hyper-capitalism, and its imperative of continuous bloody motion, of induced, forced, alienated movement. I wrote something along these lines for the upcoming RealTime, but we'll see how that turns out.

And I agree on labels. Most things that come under the umbrella of sustainability, for example, these days are rubbish.

But, a little correction, the housing projects were exploded in the US, and the UK, but very rarely in continental Europe. Despite ideological disagreement, UK cities were bombed with welfare modernism the way European cities never were. Apart from the social East - but there is a whole new set of variables we're pulling out now. Again that misalignment of label, idea, values and execution.
Oct. 6th, 2008 10:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Now that's an interesting thought.
Interesting graphs - just out of interest, one thing I've been noting lately is a kind of renascent Marxism (Zizek, Berger eg have both recently reaffirmed their belief in it, albeit in a post-communist form, and I keeo stumbling over others).
Oct. 7th, 2008 12:19 am (UTC)
Re: Now that's an interesting thought.
Post-communism sounds good. I bet its graph is on the rise.
Oct. 8th, 2008 05:26 am (UTC)
Re: Now that's an interesting thought.
Ladies, what an interesting discussion...bow feel humbled, simulated and uplifted by your intellectual discourse

BTW thanks to you both for coming to see Villanus...a great feat of theater, having seen in (I'm the stage manager)many times i still appreciate it

( 7 comments — Leave a comment )


being a gentleman farmer
guerrilla semiotics


My name is Jana P and Mono no aware is my soul HQ.

I've lived in Croatia, Venice (Italy) and am now stationed in Melbourne, Australia; I blog in many languages, to many people.

I'm a web-designer; translator; journalist; good cook; light traveller; free thinker; street make-up artist; hitch-hiker; amateur photographer; prolific kisser; fighter of bureaucracy; theatre-goer; writer of love letters; failed japanologist and a prospective urbanist.

I'm interested in the relationship between words and images, between mind and space.

These days, I write mostly on spatial theory and theatre.

I can be contacted at relatively [at] gmail [dot] com.
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