Review by Emily Smith
Bobby Russell’s WALK brings the audience into a new world, one of pain, rebirth, and a lot of glitter.
Bobby’s entrance onto the stage is envy-inducing, they emerge from the mist in the doorway like a new alien species descending from their spaceship. The light, sound, and slow movements all work together to give us more questions than answers – who is this? What are they? Do they come in peace? Or have they arrived in pain?
Sound designer Peter McCavan and lighting designer Joe Lui have collaborated to create an astonishing atmosphere, simultaneously comforting and full of tension. We are unsure if this new territory is benevolent or harmful and are nervously discovering it along with the performer. I could not tell you what kind of music was playing, partly because it sounded like nothing I could describe, but also because it blended so seamlessly with the pulsing lights and Bobby’s dance, it seemed to be coming from the air itself, a natural consequence of the movement on stage.
At first Bobby’s dance was slow and tortured, they seemed to be discovering how to move for the first time, stretching their limbs in pain and pleasure, but they really came into their own when the dance sped up, their limbs spasming and their body twisting in the air like it was reacting on pure instinct. That was the moment we collectively thought, wow, this is a professional dancer.
WALK has a stellar team of creatives at the top of their game behind it, and special mention must go to Opie Robinson’s set design. The cloud tunnel leading to the theatre took my breath away from the moment we entered. They blended the lines between set and costume with a mass of patchwork material heaped on the floor and then lifted into the air by ropes that the performer crawled into and wore, creating a nightmarish sea-creature that then morphed into another shape just by using a different section of fabric. The visual effect of this formless mass of darkness undulating towards us and occasionally protruding a hand or foot made this one of the strongest parts of the show, a truly original creation. Like the rest of the show, it was hard to tell whether the creature, if it was one, had harmful intentions towards us, if any at all, which contributed to the equivocal atmosphere of the performance.
The theme of rebirth and development is prevalent in WALK, from Bobby’s jerky movements that suggest a new creature learning to use its body, to the emergence of their head from the patchwork creature reminiscent of childbirth, to the sound of rain mixing with the music. A voiceover drove the point home by commanding the performer to “rebirth, wake up” from the fetal position, but this was unnecessary, we understood the theme from the repeated imagery.
WALK doesn’t so much tell a story as give a symbolic representation of a generalised species or civilisation, a collective development. First the development of life and movement, then of sentience, then technology, and finally a sense of self. The performance’s strength lay in its lack of specificity: the performer is not an individual with a past and memories, they are a signifier of all life and its yearning to learn and grow. Bobbie’s shaved head and lycra bodysuit with see-through mesh panels all contributed to this generality, making them an every-person, symbolic of all. Interestingly, I found that the view of Bobbie’s tattoos through the outfit detracted from this impression, inserting a specific history where it didn’t fit and distracting me from their performance. The sequence with the knight’s armour also seemed anachronistic, drawing on referents that muddled the message of the show without adding much to it, but I’m a sucker for a throne made of strobe lights so I enjoyed it nonetheless.
Bobby rounds off the show with a complete change of tone, a music-video dance to a pop song by an Aussie icon (I’ve given enough spoilers so I won’t name it, I promise it’s not what you expect) complete with a glittery new outfit (I need that jacket) and early-noughties-style preening in front of a fan. The change from monochrome to bright colours woke us up from our contemplative trance and got everyone cheering along. With enough charisma and body confidence to fit out a whole new species, Bobby definitely has a backup career in pop music if the independent theatre scene doesn’t work out for them. Not that there’s any chance of that, as WALK is a fascinating, imagery-rich exploration of how to create new worlds without a single word, and a must-see for anyone looking for originality.
WALK is showing at the Blue Room Theatre until Saturday 30th July.
Image Credit: Jed Lyall