REVIEW: BANG! BANG! | Scott Elstermann, Shona Erskine and The Blue Room Theatre

The Blue Room ends its 2019 season with a BANG! BANG! A double shot of dance theatre created by Scott Elstermann and Shona Erskine, two short discrete works of contrasting tone and atmosphere make for a delightful, captivating finale to a banner year at Perth’s independent performance nexus.

Image by Emma Fishwick

The first piece, Love you, Stranger is choreographed by Shona Erskine along with dancers Scott Elstermann, Storm Helmore, and Bernadette Lewis, with text by Vahri McKenzie, read by Jo Morris as part of the complex and haunting soundtrack by Joe Paradise Lui. Erskine explores the idea of public shaming by interpreting the true histories of three women accused of murder. The program notes emphasise a contemporary lens when viewing these three historical accounts, linking the way people are subjected to intense public scrutiny online to how these women were treated by the public after being accused of murder.

For me this intellectual pretext didn’t necessarily translate directly to what I interpreted from the performance on the night; I connected with the internal torment of each of the performers/murderers, but not really because of an awareness of the public opinion of others at the time of their crimes. Nevertheless, as a reflection on how each of these women perhaps experienced personal distress, I was quite moved. It wasn’t until I spent the afternoon reading about each of the three women that I began to see the through-line of Erskine’s creation.

The performers move in finely synchronised trios and then in solos. Storm Helmore emerges as our first murderess, Martha Rendell, who has the notorious distinction of being the last woman to be hanged in Western Australia for killing her stepchildren in a most horrific manner. Helmore gives a sometimes methodical, dispassionate portrayal of the woman, who is said to have killed the children by swabbing their throats with hydrochloric acid – a particularly slow and agonising death. The audio text mentions that Martha shed no tears, proving she had committed the crimes. Following a brief reunion as a trio, Scott Elstermann pulls away for his solo moment as Audrey Jacob, who stood trial for shooting and killing her former fiance at point blank range on the dance floor of the Government House Ballroom in 1925. His performance is achingly beautiful, which, after having read the story of Jacob’s trial, reflects the romanticised version of events that the defence lawyer sought to create in order to ensure a verdict of innocence.

And finally, we have Bernadette Lewis representing Ellen Thompson, the first and last woman to be executed in Queensland for the murder of her husband. Lewis stands on a cube, flailing and shaking her head violently, then suddenly with a gasp, draws herself into a pose with one hand covering her heart and the other hand covering her stomach. I have since learned by Googling that this pose, which Lewis repeatedly and suddenly returns to within her solo, is the exact pose that Thompson makes in an old photograph. This image is striking, and when Lewis recreates it, we are struck too, as it is in such sharp contrast to the rest of her chaotic movements. Again, Erskine touches on the notion that the judgment passed on a person in the court of public opinion can differ wildly from reality, or from a ‘reality’ that some interested party is trying to create.

During a brief interlude between the two works, we are treated to some cups of popcorn by two ‘cigarette girls’, which is a nice, hospitable touch, but it also reminds us we’re about to go to the movies.

Image by Emma Fishwick

Up next is Act 2, Scenes 1-4 by Scott Elstermann, a colourful, comical, and very clever tribute to Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I was at one time an avid follower of Anderson, so I was really looking forward to this piece. I’m so glad to say Elstermann did not disappoint! He’s created an homage to the work of a man whose films are homages to a slew of cinema classics and their tropes. It’s quite a wonderful experience to recognise the camera and editing work that Elstermann is referencing in his choreography, and to see it done in the medium of dance. Stop-motion gets a big chunk of attention, and every tiny movement by each of the performers (Laura Boynes, Storm Helmore, Lilly King, and Bernadette Lewis) is picture perfect. They sometimes lip sync to excerpts of dialogue from the film, which Richie Flanagan, St John Cowcher, Libby Klysz and Bernadette Lewis have re-recorded for the piece. One of my favourite moments was a solo by Lilly King where she becomes a kind of jangly zombie. I can’t remember what that might have to do with the film (don’t remember any monster movie scenes, to be honest), but it sure was fun to watch King perform! One of my other favourite things about this piece was the absolutely gorgeous lights by Chris Donnelly, who turned three bare walls into a rainbow of Andersonian palettes. But perhaps the most fun aspect of Elstermann’s work is how each of the performers gets to really ham it up and display their comedy chops – no serious faces allowed.

I would gladly go and see longer versions of both of these delightful works, but I am glad I got the chance to see these delicious bite-size versions running now until December 14th at The Blue Room. For tickets and more information, go here: https://blueroom.org.au/events/bang-bang/

CICELY BINFORD

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