Friday 21 July 2023


WHAT: Under My Tongue
WHEN: 18 - 23 July 2023
WHERE: Brunswick Mechanics Institute
DIRECTED BY: Belinda Locke
DESIGNED BY: Claudia Mirabello
LIGHTING BY: Bronwyn Pringle
PERFORMED BY: Amanda Lever and Joseph Stewart
Amanda Lever and Joseph Stewart

We all know about disability...we think. So often, though, people forget that some disabilities are invisible. Quite a lot, actually. With the performance piece Under My Tongue (and accompanying exhibition) director Belinda Locke interogates the barriers for people with those invisible disabilities and how they are managed. The exhibition juxtaposes respondents' answers with commentary from people with more visible disability which is intriguing and powerful. Under My Tongue is being presented by Next Wave at the Brunswick Mechanics Institute this weekend. Note, it is also available on demand via streaming until the end of July.

Under My Tongue starts with a man (Joseph Stewart) doing the seemingly innocuous act of going to bed. He takes a pill and settles into what we assume is a good night's sleep. An intriguingly contrary start to a theatre show indeed. At some point though, his arms start moving, pointing, dancing in staccato sequences. It resembled an external representation of dreaming until his partner (Amanda Lever) joins him. She notices but continues calmly in her bedtime routine, laying down beside him and gently touching his arm before settling into sleep. This seems to calm Stewart and for a moment there is peaceful slumber for them both.

Then Stewart starts up again and Lever tries to calm him, using more and more directly suppressive actions such as smothering. At some point Lever also starts her own manic contortions. Eventually they both end up out of the bed and dance a beautiful duet  of pain and awkwardness. Thus ends act 1 and it is beyond impressive in all ways. The big red curtain and bed evoking a mouth and tongue as well as the contradictory symbols of comfort and danger. 

In act 2 the red curtain is paged and the warmth of the boudoir is replaced by the cold blue of a hospital waiting room. Designer Claudia Mirabello has juxtaposed two incredibly different spaces with minimal, yet impactful backdrops. Lighting designer Bronwyn Pringle weaves her powerful magic emphasizing the architecture in sophisticated ways. The strong, grey blue vertical lines of the concertina backdrop, industrial chairs and the ECG style beep in composer Emah Fox's design work together as one to tell us where we are and how we might feel about being there.

Stewart and Lever find themselves in the cold, beeping environment after their tussles. It seems at this point Stewart morphs into a simple companion sitting in the waiting room. For most of the rest of the show it is Lever doing the dancing in a series of solos, her body enmeshed in Fox's synth pop creations, her body contorting at the music beeps and crackles, both human and music collapsing and rebuilding under stress and strain.

For most of this I was strongly affected as Lever contorts and strains with her illnesses and barriers - completely invisible to Stewart sitting patiently by her side. After the second solo though, this is where the show falls down for me. As good as Lever is, and as amazing as the music is, I felt myself falling into a bit of a slumber because it started looking and sounding the same to me. At the same time Stewart just keeps sitting around doing nothing. 

There is no choreography credit for this work so it is hard to know how to talk about this problem. There is a dramaturg though. It is unclear to me how both Locke and Julian Dibley-Hall (dramaturg) have failed to identify this big hole in the narrative structure. Towards the end of the piece the couple return to the bedroom and Stewart does become involved again, but the show is 50 minutes. There is just a LOT of time where he is a bystander, and a lot of time when Lever is dancing but it is hard to know what she is representing. I don't know if the various solos are different types of invisible disorders but there is not enough diversity in the choreography or the sound tracks to help the audience follow in my opinion.

Having said that, every aspect of technical execution for this show is world class - the design, the dancing, all of it. The accompanying exhibition is also edifying. I have a personal fondness for Andy Jackson's contribution and was touched by his comments about his partner and how important her loving gaze is for him. I love the light Locke is shining on invisible disability and the unseen struggles. She also invites us to share our own experiences to become part of the exhibition. Under My Tongue is thought provoking and revelationary.

4 Stars

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