Trojans – Team MESS and the allergy to content. (Theatre Review)
Team MESS. 14-15 and 20-22 November
PACT centre for emerging artists. You can grab your tickets here
Photo credits – Katy Green Loughrey.
Theatre takes time. It takes time to write a script, to choose a script, to audition and choose performers, to schedule production, to learn lines etc. For an art form that boasts immediacy, its quality often (of course not always) hinges on the amount of time devoted to preparation that can close the gap between the tensions of immediacy and a well rehearsed final product. In practical matters, this boils down to a financial question, resulting in the cynical reality that the more money a production has, the more time it can devote to preparation and the few fluctuations or chaos an audience has to deal with. In the artist notes to Trojans, Team MESS describe the impetus behind stripping a play of its rehearsal time and relaying on immediacy alone as “… the way of working symbolically aligns with the machinations of the fictional conceits of our art practice, where to perform is to participate in a game of our design and true agency is a mediated illusion.” This is precisely what they achieve with the latest project at the PACT centre.
So Trojans, inspired by Mexican soap operas where demand so far outweighs product that they are written on the same day as they are recorded (in front of a live audience) and actors are given lines through radio receivers, is experimental theatre, working with the sitcom format, where the audience is the “studio audience” and the theatre experience is collaborative. The absence of rehearsal time challenges the audience and the reviewer, because just as there is no focus on quality in either from, content or delivery, there is a strange desire to protect and place a barrier between the theatre experience and the fun of merely being a live audience before a sitcom for a night. Certainly if entertainment is the yard stick by which all things theatrical are measured, then Trojans is the most successful piece of theatre I’ve seen all year, as the audience were filled with electrical hilarity, leaping off their seats and belly laughing into the night. But for all I know, if I attended the live audience at channel Nine’s Big Brother this year, I’d see the same thing. The issue with immediacy is its accompanying flood of subjective tension that rehearsal eases, but this tension is also relieved by the crowd control so essential to a sitcom. So, was I attending theatre pretending to be a sitcom, or a sitcom pretending to be theatre? If the function of tailored effect is as a vehicle for awareness of what lies beneath, does it necessarily follow that the absence of that effect brings the sublimated to the surface?
There is something raw and certainly visceral in Trojans. It helps that they keep the off-stage characters in view, the PACT retains its theatre “vibe” and the play is introduced as theatre. There is no escaping its defining framework, even in the midst of the discomfort of TV chaos. The performers, led by Brett Johnson (who has a lovely singing voice) are all fine given the stress they’re working under, and the sitcom format allows for their natural inclination to incite humour when they are in the midst of their own tension. It would have been interesting to see an actor take it all very seriously, not resort to laughs as a safety valve, leaving us with our discomfort. However that is a small observation that speaks more to how much there is to work with in this interesting format, rather than a direct criticism of the show. Natalie Randall and Malcolm Whittaker are the lead artists of Trojans and their monumental efforts above all else anchor the play in its perspective. Their focus is rather spellbinding, managing to remind us through the experience that we are in the theatre here, rather than recording a television show.
But then, what is television but the simultaneous reflection and creation of society blended into one horrible and yet beautiful truth and what is theatre other than the ambitious hope we have that we are more than the sum of our parts? There is something very down-the-rabbit-hole about sitting in a sitcom that’s pretending to be life that’s pretending to be live for television that’s pretending to be theatre and one certainly feels the weight of all that cultural mess crashing around the ears. In this way Trojans is showing us something we live with and perhaps miss in the daily navel gazing efforts of survival. “Culcha” is a sensory bombardment that influences us yet hides behind our indifference without any dilution. Team MESS have brought us a thought-provoking, exciting theatrical experience that trusts our tension to guide us. It’s a very interesting night out.