Review: Roomba Nation (Hurrah Hurrah / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jul 4 – 21, 2018
Cast/Devisors: Alison Bennett, Nick O’Regan, Kate Walder
Images by Stephen Reinhardt

Theatre review
Pippi is in a medical facility, surrounded by technology and experts. A doctor and a nurse attend to her, although they demonstrate little care for their patient’s well-being, choosing instead to focus on the science and gadgetry purportedly designed to make us feel better. Roomba Nation is concerned with that disconnect between humans, in a modern age defined by personal independence and isolation, as an ironic result of human advancement. Looking at the way technology is able to take over our existence, the show foregrounds humanity, asking questions about our ever-changing relationship with nature.

Pippi says she is unwell, but her sickness is a mystery. Instead of showing any obvious symptoms of illness, what she presents is a need for attention and connection. The human touch it seems, is still necessary, in these times of virtual everything. Roomba Nation talks about neglect, and we wonder if in the pursuit of progress, our focus has abandoned that which is truly important. Values are constantly shifting, because we are constantly changing. The mortal flesh however, seems to retain a stubbornness, that disallows us from living only in highly evolved states of mind. No matter how clever we think ourselves to be, the reality of bodies, keeps us humble.

Production design by Duncan Maurice is pristine, delightfully and humorously so, to reflect the septic quality of the world being explored. The three characters are absurd and abstract manifestations of people in hospitals, performed by Alison Bennett, Nick O’Regan and Kate Walder, an invigorating ensemble as fascinating they are funny. In accompaniment are three automated vacuum cleaners, dressed up as robots to symbolise the dehumanisation of society, but are otherwise underwhelming with what they bring to the stage. It is a charming piece of theatre, perhaps insufficiently incisive with what it communicates, but an eccentric spirit makes up for its shortcomings.

Resistance may be futile, but when we submit to technology, in our very participation of it, opportunities for ethical choices can still be found. Technology never exists separate from us. It comes from us, and continues to depend upon us. As long as we remain indispensable, we have to believe that it is within our power, to shape the future in accordance with the best of our nature. Efforts to make life easier are inseparable from all that we do, but complacency will only deliver the exact opposite.

www.hurrahhurrah.com.au

5 Questions with Alison Bennett and Kate Walder

Alison Bennett

Kate Walder: What is your favourite aspect of devising theatre?
Alison Bennett: A bit like when we had lunch today. We peer into each other’s hearts and it’s so pure and it’s the best and the worst of people. I can honestly say that the best moments of my life happen in a rehearsal room. More than performance. I fall in love with the artists and it hurts when it ends. I discover what I think and what I feel and I learn to humbly listen. I know I sound ridiculous but it’s true.

What inspired you and Hurrah Hurrah to create this show?
The Roomba Robotic vacuum cleaner I saw at my brother’s house. More broadly I guess it’s the driving question I have about how do average people, you and me, change the world? That literally keeps me up at night. So when I see an image that I find fascinating, in this case it was my brother introducing his daughter to the Roomba, I just dig in deep and all roads lead back to a similar question which is how do WE – you and I – face ourselves.

Where do you think we go when we die?
Oh my. I don’t know. This show has made me genuinely conflicted about my own beliefs. I don’t know if we continue or if we simply end. I might say however that heaven and hell… nonsense.

Do you think humans will always be able to control AI?
Nope. Without being grim, I think our ego has set us up for self-destruction.

What is the most ridiculous thing you have ever done for the sake of convenience?
That might be ordering dinner from an Uber so I didn’t have to walk the take away home. OMG. It’s awful.

Do you think robots will take over the world?
I think robots will infiltrate our everyday, in the sense that they will become an accepted aspect of our existence. We already know that many industries will become automated, but what will be interesting is whether Artificial Intelligence runs away with itself and surpasses our ability to control it.

Kate Walder

Alison Bennett: Would you ever buy a Roomba Robotic vacuum cleaner?
Kate Walder: Would now because they have so much personality! Not only do they clean your house, they basically double as automated waiters for light objects like beer or your toothbrush. They would also be quite useful as transport for recalcitrant infants.

Why do you think clowning is an exciting performance style?
I adore clown. The whole concept of being brave but fallible, playing with the audience but accepting the flop, being vulnerable and yet a complete idiot is so freeing and honest. It also allows the actors to address a complex issue with the beautiful simplicity of a child, which is often where the most acute observations are made.

How would you describe your attitude to death in 3 words?
Mildly avoidant. Flabbergasted. Metaphysical. Oops that’s 4.

Are you afraid of dying?
I find it hard to answer that question. I can’t imagine what it must be like to face your own death. I don’t think anyone can know until they get there. I wonder about the circumstances and hope it won’t be tragic. I hope I won’t be alone. I hope I will be taken care of. I accept there will be pain but I hope there will be dignity. For now, the fear is not knowing.

Alison Bennett and Kate Walder are appearing in Roomba Nation.
Dates: 4 – 21 July, 2018
Venue: The Old 505 Theatre

Review: Trade (Hurrah Hurrah / The Old 505 Theatre)

Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Newtown NSW), Apr 4 – 15, 2017
Director: Alison Bennett
Cast/Devisers: Alison Bennett, Dymphna Carew, Alicia Gonzalez, Mathias Olofsson, Melissa Hume
Image by Maria Hansson

Theatre review
Corporations exist to make money for its stakeholders, that much is clear. Everything else they claim to do, are undertakings that must be taken with a pinch of salt. In Trade, we examine the nature of these organisations, and their perennial pretensions around social responsibility. If the point of their existence is to maximise profit, we must always hold a sceptical attitude toward their altruistic proclamations. It is a culture that defines itself by taking more than it gives, so our interactions with businesses should always be cautious, and if their people are anything like the vile characters in Trade‘s fictitious world, then the state of our affairs is very grim indeed.

The piece looks exaggerated, but what it communicates feels absolutely real. Its theatrical language is inventive, absurd and hyperbolic; the story is told with faces and bodies in a completely anti-naturalistic way, and through its performance art approach, we discover a surprising accuracy in its grotesque portrayal of greed and megalomania.

Alison Bennett’s direction is spectacularly entertaining while maintaining a raw unconventionality. In the absence of a complex narrative, details are located instead, in all the deliberate gestures of the five flamboyant players, each one presenting their own version of the unhinged corporate cannibal. Elaborate sequences involving an energetic ensemble and its strange movement vocabulary, keeps us fascinated and thoroughly amused. Their cohesiveness is deeply impressive, and the most persuasive element of the show.

It is a strong message that Trade wishes to impart, but for all its passionate assertions, what we do eventually leave with, is a simple and unoriginal idea about the darker sides of humanity. Also less satisfying, is the deficiency in commitment to visual design of the production. The audience’s eyes are thoroughly engaged in this dance of anthropological ugliness, but little is on offer when our sight shifts beyond the performers.

It is easy to want to participate in life with the principle of “eat or be eaten”. We can think of our capitalism as being fundamentally and inevitably cruel, and then allow ourselves to do harm unto others, to keep from falling prey to those who run faster. The fear of not succeeding can be overwhelming, and the voracious appetite for an unending more, is a force that few of us can hide from, but surely there must exist something more generous and compassionate, if not entirely more blissful, in a way of life that is abundantly honest and, dare we say, pure.

www.hurrahhurrah.com.au

5 Questions with Alison Bennett and Dymphna Carew

Alison Bennett

Dymphna Carew: What’s the best thing about devising your own work? What’s the worst thing?
Alison Bennett: Best thing would be letting your imagination run off to different places. Worst, is getting stuck and having no idea what to do.

If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
A journalist or a bird.

What has been the highlight of creating and performing Trade so far?
Honestly, the highlight of Trade so far is seeing people turn up even when it’s really hard. Also, once we get into performance it is really fun.

Are you a romantic or a realist and why?
I am definitely a romantic but sometimes I think I’m a realist. It’s because I love to escape into my own world. When I was little I had an imaginary place called Ali Land. Not much room for realism in Ali Land.

During the creation of Trade, the biggest question we have had to ask ourselves is “how responsible are you?” What are some of the things you have discovered about yourself? Are you responsible? Have you changed after confronting yourself with this question?
This can get really dark because you start to think that the world can never change. Then I realised that I am responsible. I’m really responsible and I realised what a weird relief that was because that is something that can change. I had trouble seeing the light of the subject matter of change and I think that that’s it. If we can just put our hands up and recognise our own responsibility, then we can change. If it’s always bigger and scarier than us than it can’t.

Dymphna Carew

Alison Bennett: What would be your perfect Monday?
Dymphna Carew: My perfect Monday would be enjoying another day off after the weekend! Escaping for a long weekend and doing something active and adventurous.

What was the last dream you remember?
I had a really vivid dream a few nights ago and dreamt there was someone at my window trying to climb in. I remember desperately trying to move and call out to my partner, but I was paralysed. Then apparently I started to make some strange sounds and screamed, waking myself and my partner up. It was all a bit scary and weird. We probably watched too much Homeland before going to bed. Ooops.

What gets you really excited in the theatre?
I love live theatre and experiencing something so intimate with other people. When the space is used in an innovative and surprising way, that really gets me going. I appreciate experimentation and love original, imaginative and daring pieces of theatre. Any show that uses different art forms to make a story come to life and take the audience on a journey makes my heart sing.

How do you feel about being nude on stage?
Hmm. I don’t personally have a huge issue with being nude on stage, however I wouldn’t be getting my kit off for any old reason.

Skinny dipping? Love or hate?
I don’t mind a little skinny dip now and then.

Alison Bennett and Dymphna Carew can be seen in Trade .
Dates: 4 – 15 Apr, 2017
Venue: Old 505 Theatre

Review: The Seagull (Hurrah Hurrah / The Hot Blooded Theatre Co)

hotbloodedVenue: 140 George Street (The Rocks NSW), Mar 18 – 28, 2015
Playwright: Anton Chekhov (translated by Peter Carson)
Cast: Jade Alex, Maxine Appel-Cohen, Alison Bennett, Mitchell Bowker, Daniel Csutkai, Cecilia Morrow, Julian Pulvermacher, Milan Pulvermacher, Ross Scott, Anthony White
Image by Adam North

Theatre review
The narcissistic characters in Chekhov’s The Seagull talk about the things they want for themselves, and suffer endlessly for their self-centred desires. In this production devised by a cast of ten, acting is their chief interest, and each actor’s focus on their own realm is clear to see. Without a more conventional directorial appointment, and termed an “experiment in text”, the show is without a distinct sense of what it wishes to communicate, but rich with exploratory ideas from a performance perspectives. In light of this somewhat atypical context for a show, it is not surprising to discover several scenes that appear to be relatively self-indulgent, with insufficient effort put into connecting with the audience. Also, chemistry between actors is underdeveloped, as much of the work seems individually introspective.

There is talent to be found in the group and a good deal of conviction from every player, but some of the younger actors would benefit from paying closer attention to speech accents so that a more accurate sense of time and place can be achieved. The role of Konstantin is played by Daniel Csutkai who portrays innocence well, with a sense of repression that rings true, if slightly too subdued. Alison Bennett is delightful as the flamboyant Irina, providing the show with some much needed vibrancy and exuberance that keep energy levels up, but her more sombre qualities are less convincingly imagined. The young and naive Nina is powerfully realised by Jade Alex, who introduces a wide-eyed wonderment that gives the character believability, and makes her imminent demise all the more disquieting. Her crucial last scene, however, requires better gravity, as do the other cast members, who seem to lose stamina as the play progresses towards its dark conclusion.

It is always a joy to see actors working on their craft with great devotion. They put heart and mind into making magic happen, and it often does. Staging a show involves a lot more than the art of acting, and on this occasion, the missing elements are needed to support the choice of presenting the full narrative of The Seagull. Chekhov’s script discusses various viewpoints on the nature of theatre and its practice. Every society will have divergent opinions about the function and execution of artistic endeavours, but the mere presence of art is something to cherish.

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