Review By Lisa Lanzi
A commission by The OzAsia Festival and The Sydney Opera House, The Demon, while not perfect, is a tight, emotive, relevant, and gripping original work. Productions like this are the future of theatre-making where diverse building blocks coalesce into something ‘other’, and definitely more than the sum of its excellent parts. Add to that a grievous but important narrative shared on many levels by Indigenous peoples alongside Chinese and Muslim Australians. Too often, history of the hideous is altered, ‘white-washed’ or simply forgotten.
The programme notes contributed by creators Michael Mohammed Ahmad, Rachael Swain and Gavin Webber outline the stimulus for The Demon : “In 1861, a mob of 3,000 White men marched with a brass band playing confederate music into a Chinese camp on Wiradjuri land in the goldfields at Burrangong, NSW. Their intention was to scalp and bludgeon Chinese miners and their families. In a perverse twist, the rioters carried a purpose-made flag that drew on a bizarre mix of circus and confederate iconography.” What this work also manages to pull into focus are contemporary concepts of xenophobia, a destructive force that still plagues humanity globally - as we perceive every day in newscasts. I also came away with a sense of excitement that possibly one day we can all revel in the magnificent cultural diversity that exists in Australia - hopefully more original Arts work will contribute to this ideal.
Award-winning author Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s writing shifts between comedic and witty, street smart, Western Sydney vernacular and more poetic, dreamlike moments. Also contributing to the script are Samantha Hogg (Wiradjuri) and Janette Chen, wise inclusions to honour the varied cultural content. Story and direction (plus a co-devisor credit) is by Rachael Swain and Gavin Webber is responsible for the choreography. Around a decade in the making, The Demon is based on an original idea by Chinese-Australian filmmaker Tony Ayres (also acting as script editor here) and Swain with many other contributors/supporters credited. It is a huge task (and might have been problematic in lesser hands) to combine the ordeals of three cultures and many generations into one narrative, but also enlightening to compare these.
Rachael Swain’s direction is complex, and passionate. A few choices gave me pause like the occasional use of voice-over that didn’t quite match the live soundscape it was situated within . There are many shifts in location and time and some devices were obviously employed to portray those, though not always with total clarity. The narrative is multi-layered and various relationships and histories are complicated and could do with further dramaturgical refinement. Choreography and aerial stunts were perfectly executed and for the most part beautifully integrated, including the more subtle, symbolic female-cantered sequences. Sadly, some of the highly physical interactions were not entirely convincing, however well the performers executed these. There must be a way to use the skills obviously present plus some kind of complementary tech to augment the super-realistic nature of these sequences. There is also a need to offset audience expectations spoilt by the breadth of green screen filmic effects we are exposed to.
The design was exceptional and, as Swain explained in the post-show Q and A, integral to the production and present in the rehearsal room rather than an add-on closer to performance. Experienced designer Stephen Curtis employed moveable, industrial-strength scaffolding, and at the start, a particularly pertinent drape of crushed calico with projection (and shadow play), reminiscent of a temporary tent settlement. Additional human-controlled set and prop elements were ingeniously used to provide an interview room environment, a car, and such. Curtis’ elegantly simple costuming was also on point, particularly the white supremacist styling of The Demon. Lighting design from Damien Cooper was creative and very atmospheric and always served the scene. Music and sound design were important as an element to frame, suggest, highlight and propel the story - absolutely beautiful work from Nick Wales with additional musical input from Bob Scott.
The obviously invested and committed performers were all extraordinary. Vocally, physically and character-wise this cast gave their all. Johnny Nasser was a standout as conflicted detective Jihad and Kirk Page as his partner gave us a fascinating portrait of an indigenous man converted to Islam. Joshua Thomson as The Demon was a menacing presence and his aerial work was awe-inspiring as was the acrobatic work of Johnas Liu. In addition to her supreme physicality, Yvonne Huang has an electric stage presence as Wei. Christy Tran also gave us a steadfast Daphne, sometimes serene and at other times forceful.
The unlimited potential for outstanding story-telling through the wisdom of combining great writing, movement, pertinent design, sound and visuals has always been a clear winner for me. Original performing arts works should always push a few boundaries and strive for relevance.
The Demon is a significant piece and should be seen by many. It also deserves the opportunity to mature and hopefully be performed often in years to come.