Saturday 4 February 2017

Sad Digger Mad Mary - Theatre Review

What: Sad Digger Mad Mary
When: 3 - 5 February
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Tom Halls
Directed by: Yvonne Virsik
Performed by: Tom Halls
Design by: Anastassia Poppenberg
Lighting by: Jason Crick

Tom Halls

Sad Digger Mad Mary is a masterpiece of stream of consciousness Absurdist theatre. Playing now at the La Mama Courthouse you need to be quick because it closes on Sunday.

2015 was the year of centenary celebrations - what an odd word to use - to commemorate the diggers who fought and died in the wildly inappropriate (absurd?) landing at Gallipoli. Whilst that year began with a profusion of pomp and propaganda with a well funded myriad of overtly nationalist and fantastical tales of heroism, bravery, and patriotism as the year came to a close we came to start seeing and hearing more honest, less grand and honorable stories. As the mists of national delusion cleared we began to hear real stories from real diggers who thought the whole thing was basically a load of unmitigated crap and who wanted nothing to do with any of it.

Although a year or so too late, Sad Digger Mad Mary would sit perfectly within the truthful telling of those mad times and bad times. Yes, this is absurdist theatre but then the entire Gallipoli incursion was reality in a flux of absurdity.

Halls tells the story of a young digger who is sent home after a disastrous tragedy of which we only learn the details later. In the first moments he wakes in a PTSD induced fright and gently Halls begins to introduce the digger to us.

Everything seems normal, just like out of the lyrics of 'Waltzing Matilda'. A lone outsider with a campfire and a billy on the boil, camping under a gum tree and living the ocker swaggy's dream. Moments of oddity intrude in the form of flashbacks and memories. There is a sombreness and sadness and recognizability to the mise-en-scene.

The first real hint of the true story being told is the appearance of the digger's dog Bluey. This is the moment we get the hint that something is not quite right. Is this bloke really a digger with PTSD or is this true madness? In a way both are true.

The definition of absurdity is something which is wildly unreasonable, illogical, or inappropriate (you now understand why I called war absurd...). Theatre of the Absurb emerged in the 1920's and was all about a lack of logic, reason, and meaning. It had an air of hopelessness, chaos, and despair - a living remnant of The War To End All Wars. The great proponents included Beckett, Ionesco, and Genet. As I have discovered, Halls is a master of this art of theatre making.

Marrying the timing of the First World War with this movement, and then bringing in the magical and fantastical Mary Poppins with just a hint of the ultimate showman, God himself, Halls wheels and spins and turns inside out - travelling between the trenches, his childhood and an incomprehensible future where mobile phones are de-rigueur. The world is on fire and Halls is trying to tell us we are in the middle of it as we look to story-telling to identify who we are rather than look at the reality.

Yes diggers were heroes, but they were men with with strong streaks of confusion and cruelty forcing a definition of manliness impossible to live up to. Yes, Mary Poppins was magical but the way she kept popping up and butting in and then disappearing was kind of...well...weird and creepy. If God isn't a show pony then I don't know what that phrase means!

As Halls tells us the love story between the digger and his mate it becomes clear he is asking whether being Australian is something other than just being human? When his lover joins in trying to beat him to death and is then killed himself a massive question is posed about what price we will pay to fit in and whether that price is ever really enough. The suggestion is the answer to that second question is no.

Sad Digger Mad Mary is not a show for the sleepers. The shifts and turns and jump-abouts take concentration but Virsik has worked in great detail to keep Halls' transitions clean and clear and supported by the production elements. Crick's lighting is magnificent and this more than anything helps us retain our sanity in a reality turned upside down and inside out.

Poppenberg has created a beautiful and appropriate world with a mix of reality and suggestion, three dimensions and two. There is even the inside world and the outside world all of which help us understand and locate ourselves as the story-telling spins more and more wildly. Masterful detail include the gum leaves which could also be flames, continuing the theme of burning, burning, burning.

It is rare to see theatre of this detail and calibre. Do not miss your chance to see Sad Digger Mad Mary. It is one of the most truly Australian stories ever told.

5 Stars

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