Monday, 18 November 2019

Earshot - Theatre Review

What: Earshot
When: 18 - 20 November 2019
Where: Footscray Community Arts Centre
Written and directed by: Kate Hunter
Composed by: Josephine Lange
Performed by: Kate Hunter and Joesphine Lange
Sound design by: Jem Savage
Josephine Lange and Kate Hunter - photo by Leo Dale
Premiering in 2017 at fortyfivedownstairs, the Due West Festival has brought the phenomenal audio/theatre composition Earshot back to Melbourne audiences for only a few short days so be quick or you'll miss it and that would be a huge shame. Hunter, Lange, and Savage have come together and recreated this amazing symphony of human conversation at the Footscray Community Arts Centre and it is awe inspiring!

Hunter has always been an avid eavesdropper and she has collected an hilarious and terrifying array of overheard snippets of conversation which Lange has crafted into a concerto of verbatim presentation. Working with pace, punctuation, and polyphony, the performances of these two women are augmented by masterful reinforcement, sampling and live processing by Savage.

The space has been designed to represent a kind of surreal echo chamber, but the word echo is mutated into the varieties of ways we hear ourselves and others in the analogue world and the digital one as well. Closed captioning is an echo, voice travelling down a tube and emerging somewhere else in the room is an echo, digital delay is an echo, two people speaking the same words at the same time is an echo.

The genius in Earshot is many fold but perhaps the most evident is the idea that we rarely hear any conversation in full. If someone is talking on the phone you only hear their side of the conversation and if you are the person on the other end you may have the conversation of others in the room interrupting the logic and tempo of the conversation. In a three way conversation you only hear two voices - we rarely listen to our own voice in these circumstances. When you overhear a conversation at a restaurant you may hear everything but have absolutely no context with which to make sense of it.

Making sense is what Earshot is all about. How do we hear? What bits are we hearing? How many ways is comprehension and understanding interfered with through noise, through unspoken words which are assumed, through only accessing half the conversation?

The situation becomes even more complex when extreme emotion and disability enter into the picture. What does a conversation sound like/mean when you have tinnitus, partial hearing loss, memory deficit, or live next door to a construction site? How can you make meaning when you are working through imperfect translation such as voice activated close captioning? When your head is full of the chemicals of terror what does threat sound like?

So far I have made it sound like Earshot is deep and dark. It does have these elements and they are what provides us with the base notes of this concerto. There is also melody, harmony and a lovely application of tremolo.

For the most part you will laugh your way through this show. There really is nothing funnier than most overheard conversations. Without context nearly everything we say is farcical - not to mention how we say it! Lange's composition really highlights the humour because there is no dependence on real speech patterns. They certainly begin that way but at the 'music' progresses there are moment of andante, legato, fortissimo, and crescendo which stretch or compress the dialogue into wonderfully surreal charicatures of the semiotic symbols they begin life as.

Dramaturgically, Hunter has brilliantly chosen to not edit around recording glitches and incomprehensible moments which adds to the hilarity. The pair also work with a very delicately curated level of body art which helps us journey through the events. A cyclical tick in a recording becomes a regular little stand up moment (literally) in the performance. An incomprehensible portion of speech is uttered as "mumble" in the middle of a sentence - in some cases several times over. Their hands touch their hearts whenever the abusive man calls the woman a profanity... Hunter and Lange perform in perfect synchronicity, acting as all the instruments in an orchestra - sometimes in unison, sometimes in counterpoint, sometimes as call and response, etc.

Across the front of the space 5 flexi pipes are set up to represent a musical stave with the ends open at each side of the stage, also bringing to mind pipe organs. In the auditorium these pipes emerge amongst the audience creating a fantastic analogue surround sound replicating busy government offices as Lange and Hunter whisper down them at the same time as performing a conversation in a Medicare office.

Analogue and digital ways of transmitting and listening work side by side in Earshot. Speaking into tin cans sits side by side with closed captioning (the captions are hilarious by the way), noisy kitchen appliances share the stage with # hieroglyphics littering the video screen, vocally created forest sounds share the air waves with a complex digital sound scape.

Earshot is funny and clever, but it is also powerful. There is power in hearing someone else say words we have probably said ourselves but in a different context. There is power in the ways people are prevented from hearing everything clearly and distinctly.

How may Facebook discussion threads have you been involved with only to discover there was something you didn't know going on the background which makes your comments inane, redundant, or inappropriate? Have you read the entire thread of that Twitter comment you just replied to? What exactly is it you are hiding behind all that corporate speak, media spin, or technical jargon? Do you realise you are isolating people with disability if you choose not to consider their barriers to understanding?

I have made Earshot sound very deep because it is. But as is true with all brilliant compositions, the layers unfold in a way which speaks directly to your heart whilst bringing your brain along with it. As with any great movie sound track, you will feel your way along the journey and have a fun and wild ride as deeper understanding sneaks in and delivers insight.

I cannot recommend Earshot highly enough. It is great theatre, great music, and great conversation (pun intended). It's only on for two more days so hurry down to Footscray before it is gone again!

5 Stars

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