Underbelly Arts Festival (Underbelly Arts)

tableauvivantVenue: Cockatoo Island (Cockatoo Island NSW), Aug 3 – 4, 2013
Executive Director: Jain Moralee
Artistic Director: Eliza Sarlos

Festival review
This is the second festival by Underbelly Arts on Cockatoo Island. Something like 30 works, with over 100 artists, presented over 2 days in a series of warehouse-like spaces of varying sizes. While a printed guide helps with navigation, it is the stumbling around and feeling lost amidst a world of art that is the most charming feature of this festival experience. An infectious sense of daring and freedom is at every corner you turn, where yet another confounding work awaits your attention.

Many of the “projects” incorporate a performative element, which involve periodic start times (such as Tableau Vivant by Penelope Benton and Alexandra Chapman, pictured above), but unless one is highly organised and determined, it is more likely to simply enter the action randomly at varying stages of progress. This isn’t a concern as none of the work seem to depend on conventional narrative, although they often do make you think, “what did I miss?”

One unusual case is “I Met You in a City That Isn’t on the Map” by Sydney collective, we do not unhappen. The work has a definite start and end point, but it allows for entry through the day, much like a theme-park ride. Participants choose one of four different experiences and are provided simple instructions before entering what appears to be an apocalyptic world. From what can be perceived among all the chaos, depending on your chosen journey, people are required to be demolishing buildings (made of cardboard boxes), renovating the city, guiding a blindfolded friend through all the convolution, or simply walking through with headphones that provide calming new-age type music. At exit point, yellow chalk in miniature human form are handed out, and their fates become entirely dependent on their possessor. With its level of viewer engagement and ambition, this work was a definite highlight of the festival.

“Virtual Reality” by Greg Pritchard and The Ronalds explores reality tv, digital communication and technological evolution with a simple installation that allows viewers to communicate with the four people appearing on individual screens, presumably away from the island. An interesting aspect of this project is the involvement of artists who reside in regional locales, and their ability to present their work in any city with the omnipresence of the internet. “Nothing to See Here” by Catherine Ryan and Amy Spiers, works with technology playfully to wipe out the Sydney Harbour Bridge from view, conjuring ideas of migration and ancestry in Australia.

A one-hour debate was held, “Debate: Love vs Art” with proponents on each side arguing the case for each. They work humorously and brightly on separating the two and then pushing the case for their side, but it gets gradually clearer over the duration, that indeed the two are one, and neither can stand alone. It is both expression of love (or art), and experience of art (or love) that “makes the world go round”, giving us energy for life. It is a “chicken or egg” question, but luckily the universe delivers cake and lets you eat it too.


The Light Box (Fat Boy Dancing / We Do Not Unhappen)

lighboxVenue: 107 Projects (Redfern NSW), Jul 10 – 28, 2013
Playwright: Natalia Savvides
Director: James Dalton
Actors: Hannah Barlow, Stephanie King, Tom Christophersen, Dean Mason

Theatre review
This is a story about madness and fantasy, set mainly in an asylum. The theme of insanity opens up limitless possibilities for artists, and The Light Box shows just how much is possible in the exploration of our subconscious minds. Natalia Savvides’ script alternates between reality and fantasy, but provides narrative threads that allow for logical readings of the play. Her characters are colourful and fascinating. While their stories are outlandish, they are grounded in humanity, which allows us to connect and empathise.

Director James Dalton relishes in the opportunity presented by a fantastical script, and takes flight with wondrous imagery and some of the most unhinged characterisations one is likely to see. The design elements are terrific. Sound, lighting, costumes and set are transportative, and entirely mesmerising. The production bears the aesthetic of an avant garde installation but is undoubtedly theatrical in its approach. The care taken to utilise all the potentialities of an empty space is impressive, and breathtaking.

Hannah Barlow plays a young patient Ethel, and brings to the role a beautiful fragility, but shocks us with bursts of great strength at several points. She looks like a meek wallflower but delivers high octane drama at the right moments. Stephanie King has impressive range and her performance is multi-faceted, with her comedic scenes leaving a very lasting impression. Dean Mason creates two solid characters, both intriguing and sensitive. He creates a good counterpoint to the frequently rambunctious activity on stage. Tom Christophersen plays three memorable characters, switching comfortably between several modes of performance; naturalistic, surreal, and camp. His “Man Made of Spoons” character is spectacularly funny, while maintaining a frightening aura of morbidity.

At the core of The Light Box lies an interesting story and this production tells it lovingly. More significantly, it is a feast for the senses that provides an experience only small theatres can, immersing its audience in a meticulously constructed space and speaking to it in much more than rational cerebral terms. It is theatre that goes beyond words. It is something a lot like magic.