The Heart of Another is a Dark Forest
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.