When I first saw The Bougainville Photoplay Project at the Olf Fitz last year, I was blown away. I expect to like version 1.0 (which I learnt recently is spelt with a non-captialised vshows, but they always manage to surprise me. I wrote a bit about it for this blog at the time which you can find here (in the same post I damned Streetcar… controversy-monger that I am). When it was announced that Belvoir were presenting the show for another season, I was pretty stoked. Firstly, it was another chance to see one of my favourite pieces of theatre and secondly it meant a chance for my friends who had missed out previously to see the show. I had one concern, and that was the size of the venue. Part of the show’s charm was its personal nature and I was worried that in a bigger venue the personal connection between Paul Dwyer (performer and writer) might be lost. In hindsight, this was a fear fuelled by ignorance. The show has been touring at various times for three years now and has been performed in a variety of venues of differing sizes. Never mind the fact that in Dwyer’s role as a university professor he has no doubt lectured to similarly large rooms. The show worked beautifully in the upstairs space, and both the laughter and the weighted silences stretched from the front row right up the back.
In my very short review of the Old Fitz incarnation, I focused on the content of the show and I imagine that most other reviews have done so. The issues are fascinating after all, from Dwyer’s personal recollections, to the stories of his father, to the horrific facts about Australia’s recent colonial past, you can’t leave unaffected. However, I feel that something that often gets overlooked is the construction of the piece, which is nigh on perfect. Hence, that’s what I’ll be devoting this reflection of the Belvoir production to. (If you’re after a simple judgement “should I see this or not?” sort of review, the answer is yes you should).
As good a place to start as any is the vision which handled by version 1.0’s regular video artist Sean Bacon. Whenever I have to write about his work I always come up with the word “measured.” I’m sure I’ve written about this before but video in theatre is very easily overdone. It’s often horribly integrated and distracting and rarely creatively useful. More often than not I feel like it’s there for the sake of having technology in the project. This is not the case with version 1.0 shows however, and that is because of Sean Bacon. He always finds the perfect balance between intrusion and insignificance, hence I think of his work as perfectly measured. In this project his role is relatively simple (certainly compared to the last project he undertook at Belvoir, Bendedict Andrews’ Measure For Measure) and often he is simply showing pictures or video at the request of Dwyer. But there are moments when he has a little bit more freedom, when he reminds of images we have previously scene, or carefully scrolls through particularly evocative pictures that we realise Bacon is more in control than we realise.
This brings me to the images that are shown. At first the photos and close-ups of documents seem simply expository, however as the play continues there are some important parallels that are drawn. The most telling of these are the two sets of images that Dwyer feels the need to warn the audience about, the process photos of his father’s surgical work and the images of the aftermath of a massacre at a church in southern Bougainville. Both are photos that involve blood and the stark reality of our anatomy. What is particularly telling to me is that the surgical photos are perhaps more gruesome than the photos of those injured and killed in the violence. Images of violence abound on our televisions, cinema screens and newspapers. Yet the reality of life-changing surgery, the blood, the holding of skin, the implements used, these are the images we are not accustomed to. However, it is by far the photos of violence that are more affecting. When the images of surgery are shown, the audiences allows themselves many sounds, a few groans, squeals and even laughter at the excessive redness of the image. When we are shown a picture of man who no longer has a head due to an explosion, the room is completely silent, as the weight of the moment rests of every single person.
Another part of the show’s construction that I find fascinating is all the “things” involved. I suppose you might call them props, but as more often than not the objects are relics of Dwyer’s childhood I find it hard to think of them merely as props, yet I suppose that is what they are in this context. The first two props we are drawn to are those that Dwyer enters with, a human spine and a briefcase. This serves several purposes. It introduces Dwyer as an academic, who else would be walking around with a spine and a briefcase? It also serves a practical purpose, with the briefcase containing a slide projector which is used later in the show. The briefcase also inspires images of travel, whilst the spine introduces us to one of the play’s other key themes, the work of Dwyer’s father, although we are yet to realise this. The spine is never mentioned again, but its presence serves as a symbol of the biology beneath our skin that binds us together as humans. Other props of note include an authentic set of vertebrae which Dwyer performs an operation on, a noticeboard full of maps and newspaper clippings ranging in subject matter from Dwyer’s father to the Bougainville Crisis and a table which serves a variety of purpose including briefly that of a hospital bed. What I love about all these items is that they are never removed from their place. No attempt is ever made to clean the space after a prop has served its purpose. Instead by the end of the play the objects in the space serve as the landscape of the hour and half journey the audience has just travelled. Perhaps I am pushing this too far, but it became for me a perfect mirror of the events of the play. Just as the props stay on stage as reminders of past action, the open-cut mine, the battle scars and the life-changing orthopaedic work of Dwyer’s father remain in Bougainville, as reminders of past battles and bravery.
The work done by both David Williams and Dwyer in the meshing of the stories and the pacing of the work is also superb. The way the personal stories of Dwyer and his family are used to draw you into the work before the political implications of the story are raised is classic version 1.0 and you can see why the company has made a name for themselves discussing these sorts of issues. The ebb and flow between exposition, humorous anecdotes and tragic events is beautifully managed so that one is never left feeling like they’re being bombarded. The fact that despite the show’s somewhat lecture type feel, the more theatrical moments such as the room going dark whilst Dwyer recounts a journey by torchlight, do not feel out of place is a testament to the show’s skilful construction. Pacing is another area that has clearly been paid a lot of attention to. There are times when Dwyer is veritably flying through the material, particularly when creating the nervous mood of the unsure traveller, and others when the audience clearly needs more time to comprehend the material. The final build is particularly skilful, with the audience in darkness, the mood of fear and eventual relief that is created is positively palpable.
It is due to all these beautifully crafted measures that Dwyer’s stories, and the moving content of the work is so affecting. This is not the sort of show you want to miss.