Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Once And For All We’re Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen (Sydney Theatre Company/Ontroerend Goed)

Directed By Alexander Devriendt

Adolescence wasn’t really that long ago for me. I’m only two years older than the eldest members of the 13 strong cast of what I will from now on be referring to as Once and… The trials, tribulations and triumphs of this part of our lives are all recent history for me and rarely do I feel that they are well represented, on stage, screen or in other public forums. More often than not I see that representations and discussion are informed by outdated clichés, and I get the feeling that all those involved in Once and… feel much the same. This play has taken the clichés, mixed them up with real life experiences, and left you to figure out which is which. The result is a work which neither reinforces nor attacks popular notions of “teenagehood” but instead presents an honest portrait of the lives of 13 young Belgians.

The form is simple. A song plays. For the duration of that song, the 13 performers gradually emerge onto the stage, go through a series of actions associated with teenage life. These range from flicking a friend with a balloon to kissing a girl in a sleeping bag, to kicking over someone’s impressive pyramid of plastic cups. When the song ends a siren sounds and the performers clean up the stage and run off. After this form has been set-up with two pretty much identical run throughs, the action then takes place through different experiential ciphers. For example, there is one run where everyone is in love with each other, one where everyone is on drugs, one where everyone is ear-piercingly happy, one where no one actually comes on stage, and so on and so forth, until finally the magnitude of the action is increased tenfold, plastic cups have become water-cooler tanks, sleeping bags have become giant garbage bags etc. and the stage becomes a playground for some amazing(ly choreographed) chaos. The cycle is intermittently broken up by direct to audience monologues. When it’s all over and the bows have been taken care of, the cast then come out and start cleaning up.

I thought it was an interesting example of how to quickly establish a theatrical language. For the first run I wasn’t sure what to think. I was enjoying the experience, and there was a wealth of content on stage, but I wasn’t sure how to engage with it. Was this the beginning of a story about these kids? Were they in a classroom? Was the show just going to be an hour of kids being kids? How would I feel if it was? All these thoughts were running through my head while these kids laughed and played with chalk. However as soon as the process was repeated I instantly knew where I stood. Rather than attempting to take in the whole picture I started watching individuals, investigating the little moments they were having. This investigation was then taken over by the performers with each subsequent run as they revealed something new in the otherwise innocuous set of actions. Overall, I adored the form, its structured chaos the perfect metaphor for adolescence.

I also felt that the work had a really clear dramatic structure despite not having any narrative. The work was beautifully crafted by director Alexander Devriendt using what I thought was a pretty traditional three act structure of set-up, confrontation and resolution. The difference here being that the set-up is that of the form, the confrontation is that of the performers’ views on adolescence with popular opinion, and the resolution is that of the performers’ rights to their experiences.

Experiences that we both heard about and watched them have. Each cipher pinpointed the feeling of an experience of adolescence and then let this feeling drift over to the audience. The drug scene is the most extreme version of this obviously, with the loud music and visceral action demanding a reaction. But some of the simpler ideas, such as the performers simply saying their tasks rather than carrying any of them out, gave you just as strong an insight, in that case to the feeling of being robbed of your autonomy, as well as pointing out the paradox of the play itself which both freed and constrained the performers.

The monologues were perhaps the weakest part of the play. Charlotte De Bruyne’s opening was outstanding, performed with a naturalness that actors with far more training and life experience should envy. However, Jorge De Geest’s contribution was one of the few moments where the play lost momentum. Interestingly he is one of the performers that wasn’t in the original cast. The monologues were the only moments when you felt the work heading towards cliché, but luckily they were short enough that you either didn’t quite end up there, or the cliché was shown so that it could be addressed. They were also home to some genuinely heart-warming moments, which included getting the audience to scream fart.

I suppose the message of this play was that adolescence is a crazy time and to try and control it is counter-productive; that just because adults think they know what’s good for youths, that doesn’t mean they should stop them from learning for themselves. When I write it like that it seems really bland and far from groundbreaking. But after 45 minutes of this performance, this realisation was exhilarating. Watching the performers indulge in the ridiculous act of supersizing the performance in the final scene was pure vicarious satisfaction and the sense of joy that filled the room was palpable. The performance left me wanting only one thing - to see the show again many, many times. Unfortunately it closed two days later. The key to its success was simple really, the press release declared “you’ll think we’re super cool” and it was right.

- Simon

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