Venue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), May 15 – Jun 8, 2014
Creators: Kate Davis, Emma Valente
Director: Emma Valente
Actors: Dana Miltins, Mary Helen Sassman
Image by Brett Boardman
In certain religious texts, Cain and Abel were the first children born of Eve, and Abel was the first human to die. The brothers’ story is one that has undergone much speculation and scrutiny, with Cain’s motives for murder being the key point of contention. In Kate Davis and Emma Valente’s subversive vision, the first children are daughters, so it is a woman who inflicts the first act of violence. They do not investigate the reasons for the infamous slaying, but explore instead, by substituting male for female, meanings and expressions of gender and its social perceptions in relation to human traits and behaviour.
This is a theatrical work that is heavily influenced by fine art. Dialogue is sparse and reliance on words to create and communicate meaning is minimal. Davis and Valente are concerned with arresting the senses and talking viscerally, resulting in a fascinating show that is almost hypnotic in its appeal. Shades of Japanese Noh theatre can be observed in the mesmerising leading ladies, Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman, who work with a grave stillness that has more to do with spirituality and metaphysicality than storytelling. In this Cain And Abel, we are required to read not only with our eyes and ears, but also to engage with its energies and instincts. As an Australian work, it is distinctively original, even within the realm of experimental theatre.
Miltins performs an understated but terrifying aggression. Her Cain is not a femme fatale, as women do not exist as temptresses on this stage. In multiple scenes depicting various imagined manifestations of the fabled carnage, we are forced to witness her sister’s slaughter repeatedly, and to contemplate wildly, our own ideas about the artist’s themes, and beyond. Indeed, the abstraction of the piece resonates strongly, and in the absence of simple narratives, our personal thoughts are taken on adventurous odysseys.
Visual and sound design are not facilitators for something greater, they are integral to the theatrical experience, and executed to perfection. A main feature is an enclosed set made of clear acrylic, that allows for brutality to be contained (along with assorted offending liquids). The creation of distance provides a membrane of psychological protection, so that our minds gain enough detachment and security to indulge in meditations over the blood-letting before us.
Davis and Valente’s work is brave, iconoclastic and important. Religion is deeply rooted in many, and its unchecked authority affects every society. This disruption of the Cain and Abel story is emancipatory, because it encourages an intellectual response that is evolved and compassionate. It asks questions that matter, and it is incumbent upon us to consider them with a pure conscience.