Friday, September 17, 2010


A rare collaboration between two of Melbourne's most important creative spaces, Mari Lourey's Bare Witness is a joint presentation by La Mama Theatre and fortyfivedownstairs, in the latter organisation's bunker-like venue beneath Flinders Lane. The space suits the work admirably, for Bare Witness is an expressionistic exploration of the experiences of a diverse group of photojournalists in three different war zones: Bosnia in the early 1990s, Timor Leste in the dark days before its independence from Indonesia, and contemporary Iraq.

The audience's introduction to this blood, developing fluid and adrenaline-soaked world is Australian photographer Dani Hill (Daniela Farinacci), who in a short space of time goes from snapping hats and frocks at Flemington race course to photographing corpses and grieving widows in the Balkans. Years later, Dani looks back through her old photographs, recalling the stories behind the 11 most powerful shots; stories which are then played out for the audience, counting down slowly to the traumatic revelation behind the final, heartbreaking photograph.

A rigorous development process, and detailed research by Lourey, means that the play never feels less than authentic. The script does not flinch away from detailing Dani's development from a naive photographer to a cynical and battle-hardened photojournalist whose success comes at significant personal cost, but nor does it wallow in melodrama. What details there are about the niceties of Dani's profession - such as the ethics of rearranging the elements of a shoot for maximum impact, even when those elements are the freshly killed bodies of young men - are handled intelligently and without fuss, making such concerns part of the story without glossing over them or giving them artificial and jarring emphasis.

Director Nadja Kostich brings an admirable sense of abstraction to Bare Witness, relying as much on the performers' physicality and the impressive skills of the creative team - composer Jethro Woodward, video by Michael Carmody, and lighting designer Emma Valente - as on Lourey's evocative and fragmented script to evoke Dani's turbulent life and war-torn photographs. Imagination, after all, holds more power than a literal image, no matter the horror and heartbreak such an image conveys. Here, the clapping of hands conveys the click of a camera shutter or the firing of a gun, and the few images we do see are Carmody's projections of wolves, running and howling, evoking both the pack mentality of the photojournalists who befriend Dani, and the concept that they are 'lone wolves', driven for whatever reasons to operate on the fringes of society, far from the comforts of friends and family.

Performances are very good - especially Todd McDonald as one of Dani's colleagues, Jacek, and the aforementioned Daniela Farinacci - and Woodward's live score, created from his position at the rear of the theatre, is fantastic. The most outstanding element of the production to my mind, however, was Emma Valente's remarkable and very physical lighting design, which saw her constantly crawling onto and crossing the stage in order to position fluorescent lights or set bulbs swinging in order to enhance the mood and tone of a scene.

Overall, Bare Witness is one of the most memorable independent theatre productions I have seen this year. That said, it is not perfect. Its reliance on the abstract and the physical distances the audience from the story it tells, so that while I was emotionally engaged by its opening and closing scenes, during the middle third of the play the cumulative effect of the production and the fragmented poetry of the script served to render me an observer, watching Dani's descent into a personal hell but never feeling any sense of her anguish at an emotional level.

That criticism aside it is otherwise an excellent production, and highly recommended.

BARE WITNESS by Mari Lourey, directed by Nadja Kostich, dramaturgy by Michael Carmody, Nadja Kostich & Julian Meyrick.

Composer/musician Jethro Woodward, set and costumes Marg Howell, video Michael Carmody, lighting Emma Valente.

Performed by Isaac Drandic, Daniela Farinacci, Adam McConvell, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis.

A La Mama Theatre presentation at fortyfivedownstairs. Now showing until Sunday 26th September.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Review: The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum

An evocative though not entirely successful site-specific work by Melbourne company Peepshow Inc, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum draws on the history and atmosphere of the Abbotsford Convent, where Peepshow have been based since 2005, to tell a story of hope, deprivation, and religious devotion.

Like the company’s earlier work, The Mysteries of the Convent, this new production is a meticulously researched and historically accurate rendering of the lives of real people: nuns, prostitutes, penitents and others, whose stories have been woven into a theatrical presentation incorporating a range of disciplines. Puppetry plays a key role in a number of scenes, acrobatic skills are also called into play, while lighting and sound design are judiciously employed to enrich the performances of the two players, Teresa Blake and Carole Patullo.

The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum is set in a portion of the former Convent of the Good Shepherd that – unlike other areas of the precinct, which now house studios, galleries, and even a bakery – has not previously been opened up to the public. It is here, in the decrepit dormitories of the Magdalen Asylum, which once housed orphans, wards of the State and girls considered to be in ‘moral danger’, as well as the former industrial laundries where they toiled each day, that Peepshow has chosen to stage their new production.

The echoing halls of the Asylum may have been cleared of decades of pigeon droppings – not to mention cleared as a temporary performance space by WorkSafe inspectors – but its echoing halls are still pungent with a palpable sense of decay and misery which adds significantly to the production as it unfolds.

The opening scenes swiftly and effectively introduce the audience – limited to a maximum of 25 people at a time – to the setting and stories of the Asylum by focusing on the experiences of one Rose Lawler (1875 – 1926), a former Convent resident. We see her trudge towards the Convent doors in the rain, carrying a suitcase from which the narrator’s voice and judicious sound effects play.

In the next scene, and in another room, the scale of the story changes: Rose is a doll trudging up a slope made of heaped dirt, and the Asylum is a birdcage, in which Rose is soon imprisoned. It’s a poignant and beautiful image, heartbreaking in its simplicity, and more than effectively conveying the emotional truths of Rose’s story.

A similarly effective piece of stagecraft is employed in this scene to introduce the four Irish nuns who founded the Convent of the Good Shepherd, and so effective is it that I will say no more about it, so as to avoid diluting its impact for future audiences.

Unfortunately, from this point on, as the audience were awkwardly herded out into a courtyard, and thence upstairs through a progressive series of rooms and scenes, The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum began to lose its impact. It may have been opening night nerves, but the performers seemed uneasy in or unused to their multiple roles, an impression that was not helped by the occasional awkward and clunky lines of dialogue they were forced to spout. A scene presenting the theories of Italian criminologist Cesare Lombroso about ‘depraved women’ was effectively staged, but its comedic tone seemed at odds with the overall atmosphere of the production; while the final scene, performed outside, beneath the spreading branches of the Separation Oak (planted circa 1850 to mark the separation of Victoria from the colony of NSW) seemed entirely extraneous.

History buffs are sure to enjoy The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum, and with time, and additional polishing, it may yet develop into an engaging work; as it currently stands the work fails to sustain the drama and emotion of its opening moments throughout, save for one or two startling and moving moments of stagecraft in the production’s penultimate scene.

Peepshow Inc presents The Lost Story of the Magdalen Asylum at Abbotsford Convent, September 11 – October 2

Director: Melinda Hetzel

Writer/Dramaturg: Kylie Trounson

Performers: Teresa Blake & Carole Patullo

Composition: Teresa Blake & & Steph O’Hara

Sound Design: Steph O’Hara

Set/Costume Design: Dayna Morrissey

Lighting Design: Danny Pettingill

Melbourne Fringe Festival, September 22 – October 10

This review originally appeared at