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Review: WAKE at the Italian Social Club Altona - Melbourne Fringe Fest

Review by Greta Doell

Even though absolutely none of us can avoid ageing, one of the most troubling things about Western culture is its persistence in neglecting older people, as is revealed in WAKE, a moving new production by THE RABBLE.

Known for being trailblazers of feminist theatre, in their newest Fringe offering, THE RABBLE take on what it means for women to be old, in all of its complexities and contradictions.

The performance was held at the Italian Social Club in Altona, an unexpected venue which is the home to a large function space with a dance floor, bar and stage surrounded by tables for the audience. It was fitting to drive down the venue’s long driveway, and enter a space that was already buzzing with excited audience members getting drinks at the bar and deciding from which of the function tables to watch the show. It was the exact feeling of anticipation and familiar formality that you get when arriving at a wedding. Or a graduation. Or even a funeral.

This setting was the perfect blank canvas for acknowledging milestones, as WAKE explores the lives and reflections of its ensemble members. Comprised of eight women, aged in their sixties and seventies, the ensemble take the audience through aspects of their life stories, and what is learnt from ageing, or as some of them prefer to phrase it, maturing.

The show was made up of devised scenes and moments set in town hall assemblies, birthday functions, social gatherings and community performances. The scenes didn't depict a linear storyline, and instead delved into reflections of the harder to swallow topics that come with the territory of ageing. The women discussed the anticipation of what the next years of their lives will be like, never having anticipated what they have already lived through. They explore topics of death and express their fears of the Western aged care system that does not respect them. Among other topics, they also touch on euthanasia, mental health, regrets, and purpose.

The most moving story was that of trans cast member and character Sally. Having not fit the mould of the straight white bloke whilst working in accounting in her younger years, Sally now navigates the rebirth of her identity and plans for the future. It is very impactful to hear her story, especially when defining feature of this production is the community the group of women have in each other, as they confide their individual and shared feelings.

The performance space was decorated in white, from the tablecloths to the decorative flowers in vases to the costumes the ensemble wear. The elegance of the white echoed a reverence of the event, and smaller details and items of the costumes personified each woman's individuality beautifully.

The script of WAKE is informed by thorough research, gathered testimonies and a few of the lived experiences of its talented performers. The ease of their delivery from one moment to the next gave the show an air of conversational examination, and each of their unique identities were celebrated and explored through their individual scenes.

The lighting and sound design of this show really shone. It was a fantastic sensory experience that immersed the audience into the psyche of the characters in an accessible way. As the characters delved deeper into themselves, soundscapes that replicated a ringing in one's ears, or the static of the outside world, or a wordless crowd roaring, guided the audience to be drawn in, with the characters.

Different washes of light eased in and out with the sound design and action on the stage resulting in a goosebump-inducing atmosphere, like we were riding the waves of emotion and bodily change with the characters, in a way that was never jarring but always powerful. It was one of the more complex and effective designs for a show I've seen, and I loved every moment of it. We went in and out of the characters' minds, connecting with them almost on a bodily, spiritual level, before always returning to a communal space. This paired wonderfully with the light audience interaction in a few moments throughout the show, which was welcoming and warm. It accompanied the lighter moments of joy. The shared experience this show created was admirable.

It was an ensemble of camaraderie and friendship from the offset and the show ended on an uplifting, communal note that perfectly captured the essence of the whole production. From the pre-show resources to the performance itself, it is clear THE RABBLE makes theatre with community and inclusion at its core.

Ultimately, THE RABBLE dives head-first into the notion of living vs surviving in this work, examining how so many things like careers, relationships, socio-economic status, gender non-conformity and identity intersect in the experience of ageing in a woman’s body. It felt like the only thing missing therefore was the presence of more cultural diversity in the ensemble, due to the huge role race and cultural background also play in the treatment of older Australians. Given the show’s broad approach to the topic of ageing through this group of women, from the outside it appeared that there was enough room to acknowledge this factor as the work dived into the experiences of ageing that women of colour are not exempt from.

But that is not to say this work isn’t welcoming, inclusive and innovative. I hope WAKE is staged again, along with more shows that give more representation to older women and performers. It’s important work, and a pleasure to watch.

Image Supplied


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