Spend Even Two Nights At MIAF & Prepare To Have Your Perceptions Challenged

15 October 2019 | 1:48 pm | Hannah Story

We spent two nights at Melbourne International Arts Festival, and found ourselves provoked and entertained in equal measure.

It feels like the through line between the Melbourne International Arts Festival’s diverse program of events is the sensation of being challenged. That was the overall experience of being in the midst of it: being provoked by work that interrogates how we think, and how we can change our world. It's animating – and that comes from just daring to have the argument, the exchange. 

Anthem, is the new collaboration between playwrights Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas, Andrew Bovell and Patricia Cornelius, and composer Irine Vela, the group reunited after their 1998 production, Who’s Afraid Of The Working Class?.

Anthem barrels into the same themes, with the same fierce intent: to push us to think about the world that we live in now. Through the narrative device of a train carriage, characters move towards their destinations and slowly reveal the realities of their lives, bringing up issues around class, race, age and gender.

There’s a moment where a young woman, struggling to keep control of her young child, unleashes on a ticket inspector, much to the discomfort of her other passengers, who start to film the altercation But, as an audience, instead of wanting to admonish her actions, we’re encouraged to empathise. We’re asked to understand and feel for even the most difficult people on this train, whether the dreamers, the people arguing about Brexit, or those trying to mend fraying family ties.

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We’re most captured by the ferocity of the language here, the way the dialogue skitters, the way people with widely diverse perspectives butt heads and interrelate on the train. This play is as much about what the characters have to say about inequality and fear and power, as it is about the power of language. 

Tensions mount and dissipate as steadily as a train moving along its tracks, to the score of Jenny M Thomas and Dan Witton’s violin and double bass, the pair sidestepping the cast during scene changes. When the impressive ensemble cast (Eryn Jean Norvill, Maude Davey) speak in unison, as a chorus, standing equally spaced across the sparse but utilitarian stage, or when Ruci Kaisila sings I Still Call Australia Home, there’s a real sense of rhythm and poetry that keeps us compelled. 

At Tolarno Galleries, Japan’s teamLab present Reversible Rotation, a collection of immersive screen works. In the gallery space, they’re, by necessity, not able to be as large and overpowering as the collective’s work at teamLab Borderless in Tokyo. But they are beautiful and absorbing, Waves Of Light taking up much of a wall with the sound and imagery of waves, lapping towards the shore. It’s completely engrossing, almost meditative.

There’s a darkness to Enso, Reversible Rotation – Cold Light, and Reversible Rotation – Black In White. While you could view the works online, that would stop you from fully reckoning with the intricacy of the brushstrokes, with the way the last panel rotates and expands. It’s intoxicating in its own way, but without the easy recognition of the waves. 

There was something confronting about choreographer Lucy Guerin’s Split. It’d be too easy to say that was due to the nudity in the work. At first dancers Lilian Steiner (naked) and Ashley McLellan (clothed) move in perfect unison across the whole space, to the penetrating throb of Scanner and Robin Fox’s composition and sound design. Seeing a dancer move, unclothed, is fascinating – you can see every muscle that moves, the sheen of sweat under brighter lights. It’s a totally novel way of thinking about the female body, for what it can do, rather than what it represents. 

But as time goes on, the dancers use tape to drastically diminish the space they dance in. They cut the space in half each time, and the lighting from Paul Lim changes, at times casting the dancers’ shadows on the wall. By the end, the pair are dancing, not in synchronicity, but almost as a challenge to one another, in a space barely big enough for them to stand in. There’s conflict in the narrative, but also communion. Are we looking at one person at war with themselves, trying desperately to be at peace? 

What Girls Are Made Of sees Scottish theatre-maker Cora Bissett reflect on her youth, a 17-year-old thrust in to the commercial music world. While the production is less of a provocation than other parts of the MIAF program, it still asks us to reconcile who we are with our memories of who we were, and to care for our younger, naive selves.

Bissett joined the band Darlingheart at 17, going on to tour with the likes of Blur and Radiohead, before an unscrupulous manager, and a flailing debut album, saw the band’s demise. Bissett approaches her younger self – brought to life again through her diaries – with a real fondness. Her exceptionally able cast of three musicians/actors vividly bring to life everyone from Damon Albarn to Bissett’s parents, with little more than a pair of sunglasses and a change in inflection or pose. 

There’s a real joy here, even as the production traverses difficult subjects – miscarriage, Bissett’s father’s struggle with dementia, the pain of letting go of a teenage dream. But these moments of genuine trauma are made palatable by the sheer charisma of Bissett, and her willingness to always move to a place of humour. There’s plenty to laugh about, even as we find ourselves moved and inspired. Ultimately, it’s a story of hope, a reminder that any of us can pick ourselves up – and find a way to sing about it.

We’re asked over the course of Melbourne International Arts Festival to consider ourselves in relation to space – the gallery space, the train carriage, the theatre, the concert space, the Spiegeltent, the warehouse. 

We’re encouraged to think about ourselves in those spaces and how we relate to other people, and also to ourselves. It feels like in all the challenge, in all the provocation of the MIAF program, in the demand that we think about identity and money and power, there’s also a simple entreaty: be kind. 

Disclaimer: The writer was the guest of Melbourne International Arts Festival