Wednesday 15 May, 2019
Co:3 Australia‘s latest work takes a good, hard look at Perth’s segregationist past and lays it on the line. Artistic Director Raewyn Hill and co-creator and Noongar man Mark Howett unleashed an exhilarating new work, THE LINE, on the public last week, and it will be one of 2019’s most noteworthy productions. The company treads into some very uncomfortable territory in our fair city’s history, to a too-recent time when Aboriginal people were prohibited to be in town unless for work or other activity which required an official ‘native pass’. THE LINE explores the tension and farcical nature of this shameful era through unrelenting movement, live music and high-impact visuals.
After a beautiful, moving Welcome to Country from Darryl Kickett, the curtain slowly rises to the vision of two of THE LINE’s three performers, Ian Wilkes and Katherine Gurr, swinging from two of the stage’s several swings that are suspended from the fly loft by thick chains. The swings allude to the area of Perth previously known as White City, an amusement park akin to Luna Park that existed after WWI, where Perth’s poorer populations would gather, including Aboriginals. They are soon joined by the third performer, Andrew Searle, and the three of them are pulled together, locked and intertwined in a 50-minute marathon battle of wills. We can surmise that Wilkes, a Noongar man, and Gurr, a white woman, are engaged in some kind of passionate romantic entanglement that Searle, a white man, is determined to destroy. But this is too simplistic a reduction of what takes place on THE LINE’s stage.
We witness the tensions and frustrations of three individuals whose intentions are continually thwarted, their ability to move freely being hemmed in by the resistance of the two other bodies around them. The trio are constantly caught up in each other, in pairs and as a group, until a sudden burst of violence explodes their grip. An abrupt shift in music swings us into a dance-hall atmosphere, and the performers take on exaggerated personas like those from the silent film era, doing a bit of slapstick runaround like The Three Stooges. These sequences are heightened, stretched and humorous, serving as a counterpoint to the churning heartbreak of the sequences before.
This cycle of struggle and farce repeats itself again and again throughout the performance. There is no resolution, and this is perhaps the show’s most difficult thesis to digest. We seek resolution to conflict, we want happy endings, or at the very least, a sustainable peace. This simply does not exist in THE LINE. We may take from this conclusion what we will, but when we look around at our city today, do we not see boundaries still in place, still being enforced by “peace-keeping” authorities, still keeping Aboriginal people out of White spaces? I do.
Our three dancers are occasionally joined on stage by Composer-Music Director Eden Mullholland, who swaps guitar for piano keyboard while delivering haunting vocals throughout the performance, traveling across the pit to his co-performer James Crabb on the accordion. The two don’t sit passively beneath the dancers, they are integrated, engaged, and part of the story. In the final minutes of the performance, they come so far into the dance space that I grip my armrests tightly out of fear that they would all collide in a jangled mess of guitar strings, accordion keys, swinging chains and dancer’s limbs. But that never happened.
Could I be forgiven for describing THE LINE as something like rock dance theatre? For it certainly felt like this; I could just as happily have sat there enjoying Mulholland’s music on its own, or gotten up to dance to it myself. Howett and Hill’s set design is somehow both crowded and sparse, the swings being the only set pieces aside from a slowly descending light line making its way down the backdrop. The swings intersect the space vertically, while the illuminated line slowly compresses the horizon until it becomes the bottom line at the rear of the stage. Hill’s costumes are as fashionably runway-ready as ever; the men in three-piece suits and Gurr in a flamenco-cum-prairie dress, whose tail drags slightly across the floor. Once again, I expected a disastrous entanglement there, but it never came.
One of the show’s highlights is a particular scene where Wilkes gives a solo/ monologue in language, talking about land, boodja. His delivery is tender and physical, with Auslan signs to go along with his words. I wished that the volume of the accompanying music had come down slightly to allow Wilkes’s words to come through more clearly, but nothing could drown out the clearly-expressed emotion of his solo. It’s beautiful to watch the fusion of traditional movements with Hill’s contemporary choreography in Wilkes, and it’s certainly a joy to see this remarkable performer’s artistic evolution across Perth’s stages over the years to come front and centre on our main stage.
There is not a moment in this show that passes by without grabbing us by the shoulders for a good old jostle. It seems that everyone involved in the production has poured heart and soul into it, and have done their very best to honour and engage the Aboriginal community when developing this work. Retelling trauma must be done with great care, without re-traumatizing those still living with the pain of the past. It’s a fine line to walk.