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Review: Are we not drawn onward to new erA at Heath Ledger Theatre

Review by Hannah Fredriksson

When you are given the name Hannah at birth, you end up having quite an affinity for palindromes – I know from experience, so naturally the name Are we not drawn onward to new erA piqued my interest in the Perth Festival programme. Brought to the Festival by the Belgian performance group Ontroerend Goed, the name hints at the nature of the production – it’s an innovative piece of art that is entirely identical, backwards and forwards.

The performance takes a moment to reveal its hand, starting off tentatively with lights slowly rising on a lone tree in the middle of the stage with a single apple, reminiscent of the Garden of Eden – a symbol of purity at the dawn of mankind. The actors start to move into view one by one, and at first it’s quite hard to understand their relation to each other. When the actors first speak their words appear to be completely nonsensical, but it soon becomes apparent that the lack of clarity will pay off in time.

From peaceful beginnings, things start to get messy. The tree (a real tree, mind) is quickly uprooted, stripped of its branches, and torn to shreds in a truly irreparable way. A deluge of plastic bags descends from the sky, polluting the stage in a smattering of artificial colours. A large, golden statue is erected, and then smoke fills the air in a thick haze. In the performance I attended, someone in the row behind me was muttering their distaste for the seemingly mindless destruction – to some extent I also found it incredibly confronting and saddening, but I also trusted that that was exactly the intent; to draw attention to the alarming reality we are currently faced with. It’s a microcosm of the entire history of the world up until today. 

Humanity has had such a damning impact on the ecology; we’ve come so far down the path of no return that it would take a miracle to undo the damage we’ve done and restore the planet to its natural state. Yet that’s exactly what happens – there is a turning point where one of the actors shares an incomprehensible monologue, and then suddenly the words start making sense. A video of the performance begins to play in reverse, finally revealing the culmination of the illusion that had been hiding in plain sight all along. Suddenly instead of pumping smoke out into the air, the actors are sucking it away into vacuums. The statue is dismantled, and the plastic bags are collected. The tree that had been damaged beyond repair is made whole again. The conversations witnessed but not understood in the first half suddenly reveal that the group of people have decided to clean up the mess, and then decide to part ways once their work is complete so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

A subtle difference between the live half and the recorded half is that the latter is underscored by a musical piece by William Basinski called The Disintegration Loops. This piece was borne out of Basinski’s attempts to salvage earlier recordings made in the 1980s on magnetic tape. While attempting to transfer them into a digital format, the tape began to deteriorate, producing gaps and cracks in the music which were exacerbated as the process was left to continue for long periods. The sonic entropy adds a sense of fervour to the clean-up efforts, while simultaneously echoing the cyclical nature of the performance.

In order to craft the palindromic performance, Ontroerend Goed needed to experiment with physical storytelling in snippets that are comprehensible both forwards and backwards to reveal different meanings. The actors had to learn their lines in reverse, and even walk in such a way that would look somewhat natural in both directions. Physical limitations like gravity had to be considered and accounted for. In a live performance, smoke can’t be sucked into a vacuum, a smashed pot can’t be put back together, and an eaten apple can’t be restored – but through the medium of video, these things can be achieved effortlessly, returning a trashed landscape to it’s purest state. While things aren’t so effortless in the real world, it’s certainly a call to action to do whatever we can to put things right.

In some instances the pacing is a little bit slow, it seems to linger on some moments for longer than necessary without offering an additional visual illusion or story point to justify it. Destroying a tree also seems like a drastic measure, but its shock value is a pervasive element that stresses the urgency of our global predicament.

Are we not drawn onward to new erA is a piece of theatre that inspires both distress and delight, inviting us to examine our role in the desecration of the planet, and challenging us to take steps to undo the damage, even if it seems like an impossible task. It offers a glimmer of hope to anyone who has ever felt like a plastic bag, drifting through the wind, wanting to start again...

Image Supplied


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