Saturday 19 August 2017

The Absence of Knowing - Theatre Review

What: The Absence of Knowing: Four Men & Dog Play
When: 17 August - 3 September 2017
Where: La Mama Theatre
Written by: Elvis Peeters
Directed by: Richard Murphet
Performed by: Tom Dent, Rob Meldrum, Emma Smith, Jackson Trickett, and Tim Wotherspoon.
Set by: Eloise Kent
Lighting by: Kris Chainey
Sound by: Roger Alsop
Stage Management by: Jackie Mates

Emma Smith and Jackson Trickett
Elvis Peeters is a Flemish playwright we have no familiarity with in Australia so it is only fitting that his work be brought to our attention by one of our leading theatre makers, Richard Murphet, in the season The Absence of Knowing at La Mama Theatre. Two of Peeters' plays - Four Men and Dog Play - are partnered in an explosive exploration of the emergence of post-truth theatre in this powerful and transformative night of story telling.

We are constantly asking the question what comes after post-modern? Over the last decade it has become increasingly clear it is a world of post-truth and this is being reflected in the writing of people such as Peeters, Kevin Armento, Moira Finucane, and Kerith Manderson-Galvin. The concept of post-truth is the point where the importance of truth is superceded by emotional persuasion. It is the point at which each person's truth is the most important thing which leaves little room or significance for a universal truth - and yet it is a space where universal truths are revealed as a result.

Peeters finds his way into this space through his post punk music and writings and in The Absence of Knowing Murphett brings all of the energy and power of Peeters' provenance into this staging, managing to balance the overtly self-conscious writing delicately so as to reveal rather than explode the characters in their breakneck pace to their worlds end.

The evening begins with the 1995 play Four Men. AD (Tim Wotherspoon), Cas (Rob Meldrum), Vic (Tom Dent), and Jeff (Jackson Trickett) leave on a trek into an uninhabited and hostile terrain. Ostensibly it is a blizzard-strewn mountain, but their escape into an uninhabited and hostile environment is as much a trek into their pain wracked psyche as it is a physical endeavour.

One of the great achievements of the post-punk movement was the integration of the energy and power of punk with recognised traditional elements to create an unexpected and intensely dynamic experience which stirs the mind and body in ways never before experienced. Think of Bjork's 'Oh So Quiet' where you are lulled into a sense of rest and safety before being blasted with shocking intensity. This is a technique Peeters works with and is one mirrored in Murphet's direction.

Supported by clever design by Eloise Kent, Kris Chainey and Roger Alsop, Four Men traverses stillness of empty expanses with the raging of the natural elements. The blizzard strewn Nordic mountain top and the hot, empty expanse of the American mid-west are one and the same. These European cowboys traverse the same lonely frontiers as they search for themselves. It is their leaving other humans which allows them to find their humanity, but what good is it to them as they sit on the ledge of death?

There is a lot of theatre which screams the pain of women in this world. Four Men screams the pain of men. It is the pain of men desperately in need of the women in their life but completely unable to connect in any other form but sex - and not necessarily consensual or personal sexual encounters, more just the act of copulation.

At first I admit to thinking I was not the audience for this play, but as I came to understand the story I realised I was exactly the right person for it to be told to. Watching the confusion, pain and inability to comprehend I came to a softer appreciation for how and why men are struggling to see women in the space of complete humanity as is being demanded now. How would any of us adjust to recognising a teacup as a sentient being?

Four Men has a timelessness which disappears in Dog Play. This second short work is clearly a contemporary portrayal of a young couple (Trickett and Emma Smith) snarling and growling at each other as they play their life away with drugs. As their minds 'expand' with psycho-tropic assistance their desperation increases. These two people are together in almost every conceivable way, but the question asked in the end is the same one asked in Four Men. What good does it do them when they cannot truly connect?

The Absence of Knowing is fast-paced and physical. It will blow your mind to see how big La Mama Theater seems under the expert guidance of Murphet. It will also shock you to see just how much physicality such text-laden material can allow. Murphet's masterful direction is important because the degree of self-consciousness in the writing and the almost 'try-hard' philosophical musings would drown the work as theatre in less skillful and experienced hands.

It is also  a credit to the skill and commitment of the actors to both the work and the process. This ensemble take risks - both physically and psychologically - which will leave you in awe. They meet Murphet's and Peeters' challenges head on maintaining a tension and balance which trips along the tight-rope over the great canyon of self-knowing.

4.5 Stars

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