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Review: High Performance Packing Tape at Festival UnWrapped, Sydney Opera House

By Rosie Niven

Fear is a strange thing - often we can’t explain it, why our body starts to tense up and we start to perspire, why we’re stuck to the ground unable to look away. It feels impossible to control, and many people can’t explain their fears at all. I, for example, am terrified of balloons. I hate everything about them, and the fear of not knowing when they’re going to pop stresses me to no end. So when I walked into the Sydney Opera House this Wednesday evening to see a man lying on the floor blowing up the largest balloon I had even seen, I was immediately tense. Much of the audience had a similar response, hiding behind their chairs as the balloon came close to popping, while others were transfixed on the performer, watching him relentlessly force every breath out of his lungs. Whether utterly terrified or unable to look away, each audience member was locked into a state of stress from the moment the performance began. Uncertainty was everywhere, and the tension was palpable. When the balloon finally popped and the speakers echoed the deafening noise throughout the room, a uniform gasp erupted from the audience, but even with that small moment of release, the tension never fully left.

High Performance Packing Tape relishes in that tension, exploring fear, risk and self-preservation whilst pushing the limits of physical performance. Using ready-made objects, stationery and hardware items, solo performer Lee Wilson tests the limits of everyday objects while putting himself in dangerous predicaments, much to the terror of the audience. These collapsible objects become Wilson’s playground, finding a sense of fun in the ordinary. Boxes are climbed, a tape measure is turned into a whip, and three rolls of sticky tape are twisted into a huge tightrope that Wilson seems to glide effortlessly across. As he pushes his limits further the stunts start to become more dangerous, resulting in Wilson suspending naked from the ceiling with sticky tape which he cuts swiftly and sends himself flying across the room. These extreme physical acts fill the audience with fear and uncertainty, but in that fully packed theatre, not a single person could look away as he swung across the space, or wrapped himself up in rubber bands, or hung upside down from his tape tightrope with only his toes. Without saying a word in the entire 70 minute performance, Wilson has expertly captured his audience.

While sparse, the lighting and sound in High Performance Packing Tape works to create an environment that pushes the audience’s stress levels further and further. The show swings between extended periods of silence and a live soundscape created from recording the action on stage, and the experience is visceral. A scene with extended strobe lighting pushes the limits of what you’re willing to watch as your eyes uncomfortably shift and fail to adjust.

With every show they create, powerhouse Australian company Branch Nebula make it clear why they are a company to watch. High Performance Packing Tape is no exception. The work challenges our perceptions of performance and allows us to delight in the dangerous, even if we’re biting our fingernails in terror for most of the show. Come to the Sydney Opera House ready to watch Wilson turn the ordinary into the extraordinary, to see the human body pushed to its limits - but if you’re also scared of balloons, maybe sit at the back for this one.

Image Credit: Daniel Boud

All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.

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