Dark Vanilla Jungle – Sydney fringe Festival (Theatre Review)
Dark Vanilla Jungle
Mad March Hare theatre Company for the Sydney Fringe Festival
All images courtesy of Daina Marie Photography
For Phillip Ridley civilisation is the veneer we use to protect ourselves from our ugliness, but it can be argued it is also the conversation that protects us against genuine self-examination. For those awake to the very real horrors our irrational hatred perpetrates on those we subliminally fear, society is a worrisome and dangerous place, made all the more sinister by faux representations of liberal tolerance. In this world, the assignation of criminal status becomes the definition of a good person. A person’s value is not measured by good works, but by the absence of legal convictions. Defense is ambiguity, multiple perspectives, different opinions. Rape victims have always known when we say we despise rape, when the police claim they will prosecute, when we call it a crime, we are allowing for its continuance and nurturing its perpetrators. It is this subject Phillip Ridley examines in his deeply moving and powerfully provocative play Dark Vanilla Jungle. His protagonist is that most feared and hated of all creatures, a young girl in the midst of her transition to adulthood. Our female protagonist is poor, abandoned by the protection of her family and open prey for predators. Phillip Ridley has her stand before the audience and tell her story. A story that becomes all the more confused and frightening as he combines incident and consequence as if they occur at precisely the same time – which of course they do.
However, what makes this particular production of Dark Vanilla Jungle by Mad March Hare Theatre Company so provocative and intellectually stimulating is the question of who is listening to our female protagonists tale. Set designer Ben Brockman places her behind a transparent curtain, as if she is locked in a cell that might be in an institution, a jail, a hospital, a battered women’s shelter or the bedroom in a refuge. Two carefully positioned cameras project her onto walls outside the small room and continuously place the audience in a position of power over the young girl. She tells her story and our judgement determines her truth and the subsequent outcomes. It is not her story that is ambiguous and filled with uncertainty, it is her audience. As her story reaches its horrifying zenith, the watcher becomes more and more conscious of their power over her narrative and her life. The audience experiences its own effort to diminish, reduce and dilute the tale, that has no place upon which to fix our grasp. The more of a victim our narrator becomes, the less likely she will arouse enough of our sympathies to claim assistance. When we leave the theatre, we leave her behind, trapped in her glass, immediately confronted by our power and our refusal to use that power.
This is remarkable theatre from Mad March Hare who are having a fantastic year in 2015, working very well with Philip Ridley’s texts. Claudia Barrie, who directed Shivered earlier this year, performs in the very demanding role of our story-teller protagonist shouting a painful narrative from beneath her bell jar. She is strongly supported by directors Fiona Hallenan-Barker and Emma Louise who also assists as vocal coach to Barrie. The two directors work aligned, bringing a strength through collaboration to the text rather than a problematical split in vision. One of the most exciting aspects of this production for theatre goers is the cohesion, obviously brought about by many hours of thought and communication between the small production team who do something intircate, complicated and unusual with a unanimous voice.
The directors and Brockman bring us very close to the action, and by erecting a real fourth wall, ensure the discombobulating effect of audience involvement that contributes to the fascinating examination of the listener. All attempts to see Barrie the performer are thwarted by our own judgement, just as we judge the character she plays. This power play constantly shifts and unsettles throughout the performance. The result of this is, of course, the ultimate power shift away from the girl at the heart of the story to the audience who can’t escape the real of their judgement. Barrie’s performance is intense and immersive so that we are never given the relief of seeing her as an actor playing the part of the protagonist – rather we are forced to confront the story itself, and our ongoing role in its true to life omnipresence and our overall compliance for this shocking and common tale.
This is a remarkable performance wrapped in an excellent production that works within the realms of storytelling incorporating an avant guard association that works. Again for Mad March Hare its one of the best things I’ve seen this year and a remarkable, frightening experience of top-notch theatre.