‘The Collective’ are four actors well known to Melbourne’s theatre scene. Eloise Mignon is part of a lineage of experimental theatre, Gareth Davies and Thomas Henning are of anti-theatre Black Lung fame, whilst Eryn Jean Norvill has featured as, in her words “the tragic heroine” in various productions across Australia. I think there is also TV and film involved, but it’s in the former capacity that your correspondent recognizes them, today writing from a hiding place within a Hegel and Lacan performance conference Repetitions in Ljubljana, Slovenia.
To my knowledge, as suggested by the rather banal label for the group (evoking the worst of Soviet-era bureaucracy), they’ve never been on stage before together as a group. So I was looking forward to seeing what happened during Remake, the result of a few weeks development in Budapest.
The terrorizing elements of Henning and Davies’ Black Lung days are present from the beginning, with a hoax about a technical failure and sideswipes at the previous group's poorly executed bump-out, skillfully played to the back row of roaring Aussies by Davies. The actor claims that although he is sensitive to the fact that we are, no doubt, exhausted from sitting through 3 days of lectures about Hegel and Lacan - nevertheless he’s ‘proud to be the final lecture of the conference’ and appreciates our attention for ‘the next two or three hours’. Thankfully, Mignon pokes her head out the back and calls him like a dog - “here boy” - which he eventually responds to, ending the scene.
From the beginning the Slovenian audience sensed they were in the presence of theatre royalty, as they caught on pretty quickly to the infectious howls from the back row. The Collective proceed to tape out a ritualistic (Christian? Paganist?) cross on the floor to some heavy techno, interrupted by Norvill’s biographical direct address to the audience. Any cringing at the cliché was quickly overcome by the sharpness of its focus - Norvill simply reels off the number of times she’s been impregnated over the course of a play (4 out of 12 from memory), the number of times she’s been a virgin at the beginning of the play (many), and the number of times she’s been one by the end (not as many) and other stereotypes of female roles, before multiplying their total performances (or repetitions) into grand totals (according to her, she’s died 392 times). It’s an overwhelming statistic that paints a pretty bleak picture of Australian culture for its largely international audience, perhaps also acting as a nod to the patriarchy it shares with Europe - at least within white Australian culture.
There follows a long section in which Davies tries to encourage the others to participate in a singalong of “You, you are there”, which certainly feels like a made up song even if it isn’t – creating a harmonious group moment, only for him to ask them all to leave while he works on it himself. Mignon eats a banana dressed in a toga, some kind of acknowledgement of history combined with a phallic castration metaphor. The play ends with a metaphysical speculation on a light globe box, with Henning lamenting that “a light globe box is all it can ever be”. It's amateur philosophical speculation dressed up with Aussie irreverence and piss-taking, complete with a slideshow of stream of consciousness critique rolling on the side wall (oscillating between the everyday ''I went to a kebab shop" and spiritual crisis "we became trapped in a religion without reason").
The end of the performance brought rapturous applause from the patriots in the back row, complete with the audible blokey declaration from an overly enthusiastic Hegelian that “AND THAT'S WHAT AUSTRALIA'S LIKE!”.
Which, although probably meant in a self-deprecating manner, I think is revealing of something here. Because when it’s all stripped back, what was effectively presented was, from a particular standpoint, a kind of collapse of Christianity redeemed through an expression of patriarchy and a white crisis of identity. In the context, this is problematic. In a way it's certainly “what Australia’s like”, but only in a kind of way, and despite it’s performative honesty from the collective and a willingness to probe 'the self', in a western sense I suppose, there’s something disappointing in the outcome of Remake, especially within the context of the problematic whiteness/Christianity of the conference itself. Within this context, Remake definitely acts as a mirror, for better or worse, of the conference from a particular perspective – effectively a white, Christian, patriarchal identity crisis.
Of course, The Collective probably don’t know all of the connotations, as I didn't see them at the conference, and in pointing it out I’m probably being unfair tarring them with the same brush. Nevertheless, the point is worth making that this is not what Australia ‘is like’ any more than the conference is what academia ‘is like’ – the representations in both cases are paradoxically exclusive of crisis through the nature of their investigation of a specific kind of crisis.
It goes without saying - and so in a Hegelian way, I won’t say it - that The Collective is a great way for these actors to explore more their identity and their relationship with each other. I have just seen too much erasure of history already and too much stripping away only for the reconstruction to exactly replicate the conditions of the original. Regardless of what was intended, what was created here was some re-affirmation of some of the problems with whiteness and patriarchy present in the conference. Revolution, as it was explained to me in three minutes on the closing night of the conference at 12.57am as I was leaving for the bus, occurs through returning to the origin of the repetition itself and then infusing it with variation. The first is meaningless without the second – that is, if transformation is genuinely the goal here.
Which I think it should be. There is a place for actors to undertake ensemble work of course, even if they are white actors representing the national identity (by default) in a faraway country, in a context that happens to have its own complicated representation politics. Consciousness and self-critique of a particular kind might go a long way towards dealing with the contradictions which result - they were present as starting point, just not as a whole - not in the form. There's also a question, ever-present in ensemble work and devised, of how to recreate something other than a re-affirmation of the very reality one seeks to deconstruct through performance. These are questions, I think, of how to authentically move, as it were, 'out of a comfort zone'. It’s an advantage of ensemble work that it offers the freedom to undertake such discovery, but the results have to be looked after - and in the context of the conference, they may have (inadvertently) reinforced and perpetuating something which could be said, again from a particular standpoint, to be culturally conservative.
Whether this is part of the nostalgic charm of the Black Lung days, which I largely missed out on, or just a kind of limitation of an actor in engaging other possibilities, I don't know. It goes without saying that the questions of representation of Australians performing overseas in various capacities carries with it the burden of representation - inevitably white, inevitably also putting forward a certain (culturally powerful) narrative without inviting critique. Australians are, as I was discussing with a British actor recently, quite a weird colonial mix of violence and self-denial, and precisely not taking into account this weirdness feels like a mistake for any company touring work, of whatever genesis. There are plenty of ways to challenge this which exist in cultural discourse around Australia's relationship with Europe - and it occurred to me during Remake, and I suggest here, that exploring such ways with rigour should not be optional, but absolutely prerequisite.
Devised by The Collective
Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Eloise Mignon, and Eryn Jean Norvill
Performed September 25th
at the closing of Repetitions Conference, Ljubljana, Slovenia