The Disappearences Project
Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Performing Arts, Brisbane, 5th July, 2012
Two actors — a middle-aged Australian woman and an African American man of similar age — are seated on simple wooden chairs, approximately two meters apart. A video depicting empty suburban streets and houses is back projected onto a screen behind the actors, framing the performance, and providing suitably stark images of emptiness. The actors speak in measured tones, rarely displaying significant variations in inflection and cadence. Her voice is shrill, broadly Australian; his, a deep, resonant baritone, mellifluous and rich. Sometimes their words overlap, and it becomes difficult to understand what they’re saying, although certain words are discernable. An atmospheric ambient soundtrack accompanies their monologues. The performers are exemplars of containment, reason, and restraint. Their demeanor and attitude toward their subject matter is strange given that they are speaking about the disappearance of loved ones, those who flesh and blood human beings hold closest to their hearts: sons, daughters, lovers, husbands, wives, brothers and sisters.
Compiled from interviews with people who have experienced such a bewildering loss, the performance provides a cross-section of reactions and responses to this most profound and personal crisis. Version 1.0, the company responsible for this work, has obviously made a deliberate decision to underplay the emotional intensity of this most horrific experience. In theory, this gambit might allow the audience to analyze the experience dispassionately; thereby gaining an insight into a phenomenon that is too often approached through a tabloid fog of hysteria and overblown sentiment. For me, this technique induced soporific indifference. Why? Well, apart from the performance being incredibly static in theatrical terms — it could easily have been transposed to another medium with no significant loss — it spectacularly missed the most important aspect of personal loss: singularity.
The play is devoid of proper names, pronouns abound, effectively generalizing and banalizing the disappearances at the heart of the performance. We love and care for specific people — human beings who are mortal, fragile and irreplaceable. By stripping away references to the singularity of being, the play trivializes the very issue it’s trying to examine. Theatre can engage an audience on many levels, and empathy, or identification with specific personages is not necessarily a prerequisite for theatre that makes people think, or facilitates what that old German master of estrangement, Bertolt Brecht, called ‘complex seeing’. The trick is to know when to play the ‘alienation’ card, for it’s not guaranteed to always produce enlightenment.
The indifference and insensitivity of officious bureaucrats, or the apathetic attitude of hardened police officers may indeed common experiences, and constitute some sort of lexicon of loss, but these attitudes are hardly surprising. There is something vaguely irritating about documentary theatre that is compiled from verbatim transcripts, and turned over to actors to intone for aesthetic effect. This genre of performance makes me uncomfortable. When contentious themes are handled badly, they often exude the rank odor of bad faith, and exploitation. Surely, there is a more effective way of approaching this issue, right?
Jane Howard’s Review