Wednesday, 12 February 2020

Unsuckle - Theatre Review

What: Unsuckle
When: 11 - 16 February 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Created and performed by: Josiah Lulham, Isabella Vadiveloo, and Harriet Wallace-Mead
Design by: Freya Allen
Lighting by: Kit Cunneen
Sound by: Jess Keeffe
AV by: Isabella Vadiveloo
Stage managed by: Christa Jonathan
Josiah Lulham and Harriet Wallace-Mead

Thought provoking, timely, exciting - all words which aptly and yet inadequately describe the physical theatre presentation Unsuckle which is playing at La Mama Courthouse this week. A dystopian conundrum which looks at motherhood through the ages and into the future, Unsuckle takes us through generations - through eons - and lands us hard in the here and now, forcing us to really consider our future in the midst of climate emergency.

The trio of Lulham, Vadiveloo, and Wallace-Mead have been working alongside each other for many years with a shared history with DIG Collective as well as other projects. Last year they came together to present a creative developement called If Needed, Repeat as part of La Mama Explorations. In 2020 they have taken that seed and planted a tree which has far-reaching branches both backward and forwards in time.

The show begins with Lulham and Wallace-Mead literally planting seeds in a geometrically perfect square of soil in the exact centre of a perfect white square. They are not actors. Everyone on stage is who they are, but they are most certainly story-telling in the oldest and perhaps the most powerful method known to man, lyrically blended with one of the more recent performance modes.

Perfection breaks down as gaps in genealogical memory and knowledge appear. Wallace-Mead has a much stronger grasp of her heritage than Lulham, but even she can only go back around 3 generations with detail. This becomes juxtaposed in a most telling way when Vadiveloo break the performance later in the show - but I will save this moment for later in the review.

Unsuckle is physical theatre so it does not rely on vocal narrative and this set up is broken down very quickly as the two actors explore physical etudes triggered by the topic through body art. Most of it is fairly literal and the pace forms a metronomic rhythm which marks the passing of time.

This does not last too long though and one of the most exciting things about Unsuckle is it's endless array of tangents and events. One of the least exciting things is the transitions. They are always marked by the pair going into the far left corner to get a new prop or costume or put something away. That little cluster of objects does look lovely in a photographic sense for the start of the play, but lacks flexibility in performance and if Unsuckle goes on to a further life (as I hope it will) I think Allen could reconsider this aspect of the design and work it through to a better outcome with the team.

One of the things I am most enthusiastic about with Unsuckle is the complex and detailed dramaturgy which has gone into the construction of the work. Linkages on the theme of motherhood traverse history and culture, fact and myth, reality and hope.

 Lulham is man - the man's place in the conversation, the man's place in community, the man as active participant and honoring bystander. Wallace-Mead manages to degender the concept of mother to make it humanity inclusive rather than just being a gender issue. She makes space for man in motherhood. Vadiveloo gives us pause in the traditional able anglo lens to discuss intercultural ancestry and living intersectionality which is epitomised by the problematic body.

The stuff of myth and legend is personalised in the here and now. Through ancient western mythology we find ourselves right here in Australia, with the uniqueness of what we have in nature, in community, and in person.

As deep, and sometimes dire, as Unsuckle is, it is potted with humour through the subtle and masterful use of AV (Vadiveloo).  I am particularly impressed with how she manages to not allow the imagery in the film work to dominate the imagery of the performance.

Keeffe's magnificent sound design takes us everywhere we need to go - from the melody of love and life through to the eruptions of despair and disaster. Cunneen's lighting does what it needs to do as well.

I was, perhaps, not astoundingly inspired by the first half hour of the show but then the true originality of the work kicks in and I was taken on a fascinating and wild ride I never expected but am so glad I got to experience. I am not giving any spoilers because I really want your curiosity to be peaked so that you go and see Unsuckle for yourself. Inspiration is yours for the taking this week at La Mama Courthouse.

4.5 Stars

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