Friday 3 November 2023

WEREDINGO: Theatre Review

WHAT: Weredingo
WHEN: 1 - 4 November 2023
WHERE: Arts House (main hall)
PERFORMED BY: Thomas E S Kelly, Benjin Maza, Glory Tuohy-Daniell, and Vicki Van Hout
LIGHTING BY: Chloe Ogilvie
COSTUMES BY: Selene Cochrane

Benjin Maza, Thomas ES Kelly, and Glory Tuohy-Daniell - photo supplied

Every so often a show comes along which excites your soul and shakes your conscience at the same time. Weredingo, created by Karul Projects and playing this weekend at Arts House, is one of those shows.

Weredingo began as a solo dance exploration back in 2017, when Thomas ES Kelly (writer and choreographer) and producing partner Taree Sansbury created a solo dance exploration of a person shape shifting. That solo - or a version there of - is still in this third iteration of the original idea and is still the powerful centrepiece of the work. In 2019 the original Shifting>Shapes became SSHIFTT. In SSHIFT the work expanded into the basic story we have now, but back then it had a sci-fi aesthetic and perhaps less sophistication in it's dramaturgy. By 2021 this fully realised version of Weredingo emerged as part of the Brisbane Festival. This is the show we are seeing in Melbourne. We are so lucky to be seeing it at all, and even more importantly right now in Australian history.

Weredingo is the story of a support group for shape shifters. Shape shifters litter the mythologies of all peoples across the world and The Dreaming is no different. What is perhaps different for our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders is that their shifters are not static remnants of history past. Rather they represent history, the present, and the future as well. In a revelatory monologue by Colton (Kelly) - and supported by amazing animations by Studio Gilay -  we are clearly shown the connection between ideas, human and landscape - their integral nature, and the integrity of the concepts from a people we Westerners so often underestimate and undervalue.

As I said, this show revolves around a support group for shape shifters. We, the audience, are attending for the first time. As with all good support groups there is free tea, coffee and bickies in the foyer as we wait, and a facilitator (Frankie - Vicki Van Hout) comes around and gets some basic information. As pre-performance framing goes this is superb, so when you show up you might want to already have thought a bit about what your animal shift is before you arrive. Any kind of identifying accessory is most welcome in this very safe space for shifters.

The show starts in dimness and a humaniform wedge-tail eagle (Bunjil) crosses the front of the stage slowly, watching us unwaveringly before disappearing into the darkness upstage. Then the lights come up and the irresistable Frankie starts the meeting. We are all new to the group so she teaches us the meeting mantra which is a commitment to the safety of this space for all beasts, no matter what their form. Then Colton and Birgil - not Virgil!!! - show up and the meeting starts in earnest. 

Through dance and through speech the stories of their shifting are told. Kelly's choreography is a joy to behold. Blending contemporary styles with traditional First Nations movement and dance, Kelly brings past and present into the future with life and vitality. In his hands these dance traditions blend seamlessly - as seamlessly as the text and movement blend in the text-based parts of the show. The pas des trois early in the show with Colton, Birgil (Benjin Maza), and Frankie is delightful and somehow reassuring? In a little side note - Birgil is going to make you laugh and giggle the whole night!

Somebody is late to the meeting though. Just when we think we can settle into a simple and safe support group meeting, Denise (Glory Tuohy-Daniell) arrives. Up until now shifting has been presented as the kind of thing you get used to and become something of a master of. Denise is not that lucky. Her shifting is unresolved and uncontrolled. Almost always triggered into a shifting state, Denise's shifts are painful and violent and cause much injury and trauma to her very own self. This is when shit gets real. As soon as Denise enters the room she smells something different about Frankie and so she cannot relax. 

When Denise tells her story we see the original kernel of this show - or some variation of it - and it is a power, glory, and tragedy deserving of the centrepiece it holds. My favourite moment in the show is when Denise says 'Let me tell you my story' and then breaks into her dance. Because dance is language and it is story, and Denise's story cannot be told in words. It must be seen and felt. It is visceral. It is an experience. 

Dance does what words cannot. This is one of the reasons why Weredingo is so powerful. It integrates dance and text so perfectly that our forebrain and our hindbrain can follow along effortlessly, and our emotions and intellect work together to understand what has been put before us.

Weredingo is funny and it is powerful in its ideas and mythology, but it is also a very important message for us right here and now in 2023. In a country with a failed referendum, Weredingo speaks to what it means to be a social ally. In a world where being a social ally is a currency, and genuinely well-meaning people and corporations are jumping on board at a speed faster than light, Weredingo makes us face what that does look like and what it needs to look like. 

Allies are not needed to make safe spaces. We are needed to fight the fight which makes ALL spaces safe. Rather than creating meeting spaces and community programs for our cause of choice we should be out there in the firing line, stopping the war. If you are an ally you need to be stopping the bullet, not building a wall the bullet can't penetrate to be cowered behind.

Weredingo is the full package. It is beautiful, funny, disturbing, and insightful. The whole proceeding is watched over by Bunjil, who keeps an eye on the people and the land - ever watchful, ever present.

5 Stars!

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