Monday, February 27, 2012

Theatre: Driving Into Walls

By Suzie Miller
Barking Gecko Theatre Company
Directed and designed by John Sheedy
Featuring Harrison Elliott, Michael Smith, Rikki Bremner, Thalia Livingstone and Matthew Tupper
The Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre
February 25 – March 3
pic: Jon Green
Last year, I called another show about alienated youth in Western Australia, Reg Cribb’s The Damned, memorable and unlovely, and that’s also an apt description of John Sheedy and Suzie Miller’s collaboration on Driving into Walls.
Cribb’s essentially fictional story drew on a number of real-life stories from around Australia, while Driving into Walls is the result of interviews and workshop exercises with 500 young people from around the state. It tells their private stories, about the perils and pitfalls of 21st century life for young people, in their own words.
The methods Sheedy and Miller use to tell these stories are confrontational, striking and extremely exciting to watch. Their performers, Harrison Elliott, Michael Smith, Rikki Bremner, Thalia Livingstone and Matthew Tupper, are primarily dancers, and the courageous physical representation of their thoughts, their frustrations and anger, is the best thing in the show. They hurl themselves around the open space, throwing furniture aside and to each other (one chair broke under the assault and was chucked off stage). Much of their energy is expended on a clear plastic cell in the centre of the stage in which they are trapped or take shelter, or that they clamber over or smash themselves against. It’s all sorts of metaphors, and a brilliant technical device, and Sheedy and his cast use it to complete effect.
All the cast are also skilful, authentic young actors, and though the many characters they inhabit are limited by the almost total lack of dialogue or any interaction beyond the purely physical, they tell their often harrowing stories fluently and forcefully. They are much aided in this by a powerful soundscape by Kingsley Reeve, Matthew Marshall’s fast and accurate lighting design and the digital art of Sohan Hayes.
It’s a measure of Barking Gecko’s growing capabilities that it can stage a show of this force with these production values. While Driving into Walls may not have quite the aching power of The Disappearances Project, or Aftermath, two extraordinary pieces of verbatim theatre we’ve seen in the past year, it’s a more than legitimate example of the genre, especially given the youth of its performers.
My great reservation about Driving into Walls may well be its strength. It presents a remorselessly bleak picture of young lives in our community; there is an awful sadness and cynicism in these kids, and something deeply troubling if violence and sexual exploitation, addiction, abortion and suicide are the things that are foremost on the minds of our young people and the things they most want to talk about. There’s almost no happiness in these stories (and then, ironically, most of it comes from the Aboriginal characters played by Michael Smith, the only member of the cast whose smile seems incautious and free). There’s no joy in friendship, in family, in the prospect of the future.
I hope Miller and Sheedy have been cynically selective in their winnowing of the hundreds of stories they were told to prove their point. I hope that Driving into Walls is an essentially dishonest work, despite its many virtues as theatre.
I dread to think that this isn’t the case.

I didn't emphasise the explicit nature of some of the material in Driving into Walls; the sadness of these kids affected me much more than their frankness. It's obvious from Steve Bevis's story in The West link here that there's a danger the play's treatment of sex and sexuality will overwhelm its deeper insight into the lives of young people in Western Australian. I hope not.  

Some links: my review of The Damned here, Aftermath here and The Disappearances Project here. And for Robin Pascoe's take on Driving Into Walls in the West, link here .

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