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May 27, 2015


This review appeared in an edited form on artsHub.

The old adage goes that you should never work with children, animals, or firearms. In Living Room Theatre’s (henceforth LRT) new performance installation, children and animals play a central role in evoking the world of hysteria. Presented in association with the Sydney Environment Institute and Sydney University’s Macleay Museum and Veterinary Science faculty, LRT’s She Only Barks at Night is an eerie and unsettling evening, though perhaps not always as its creators intended.

Drawing on accounts of female hysteria from the nineteenth century and the treatments developed by Jean-Martin Charcot, She Only Barks at Night takes us deep within the corridors of the veterinary science buildings to destabilise our preconceptions and make us more susceptible to dreams and fragmented visions. The production begins in a round horse normally intended for horses, its high wooden walls and freshly-laid hay warm on an otherwise cold night. A woman lies on the ground, wearing big black boots ending in horse’s hooves, and she dreams; she tries to stand, unsteady on her feet, before she is wheeled away. Four girls burst into the yard, chattering animatedly, while their chaperone follows, holding a taxidermied cat (I’m still at a loss as to its significance). Another young girl – Augustine – enters, and is poked and prodded like a curiosity, posed for photos, before being checked by a doctor (representing Charcot himself perhaps?) as you would check a horse – head, mouth, feet. Despite this sequence’s tenuous claims to veracity (historians disagree somewhat as to the exact nature of Augustine’s relationship to Charcot), it serves as a loose framework, a license even, for LRT (under the guidance of director Michelle St Anne) to create their piece around. We are then taken up several flights of stairs to a dissection lab, where a woman stands naked on a table while a doctor delivers a short lecture on the nature of hysteria and “the wandering womb.” Behind them, two other women stand on tables, caught in their own space, while to the side, a butcher and a surgeon cut meat, and the doctor prepares a taxidermied skin for display. A woman activates a shower and is drenched, screaming and splashing in the half-dark. So far so good. But as we descend (literally) out of the building and into the more subjective realms of experience and dreams, the production starts to unravel. Quite quickly.

It’s not so much a case of too much material to include, but rather too much time being given to the exploration of each idea – much more time than is necessary. Scenes are over-extended and begin to feel gratuitous and self-indulgent after their point is made in an image, in a matter of simple brushstrokes, sometimes in mere seconds. There is a party in the corridor of an asylum which we stumble across, but we are never really made to feel part of it. Instead, we watch as one girl stumbles over a line of chairs and another tries to walk whilst swaddled in bubble-wrap. Also, and perhaps importantly, the historical context to the piece is quite important, and a knowledge of it will help to make sense of a lot of what happens, especially in the first couple of scenes. Rather than share a brief introduction to the ideas at the start of the night, we are left to fend for ourselves; one sentence in the production’s publicity blurb is not enough grounding for the piece to make sense.

Part of the problem in She Only Barks at Night also lies in the blocking as much as in the context, in the way we are encouraged to participate (or not). Many scenes are blocked in a way that is not conducive to an audience’s presence – action happens in corridors and around corners; throughout the Macleay Museum, while we stand on the opposite side of the wooden cabinets. In site-specific immersive theatre like this – as with much of Punchdrunk’s work in the UK – it is the actors’ job to encourage the audience to participate in a safe and effective way; if action is blocked around corners, then we should be urged to follow it rather than stand back, unsure of whether we should indeed follow. The four girls who burst into the round house at the beginning serve as shepherds of sorts, leading us on, but at the same time they are also a part of the action and disappear from the ‘stage’ at times. As for the last scene in the museum, action should be blocked with the audience in mind – where should we stand, where should we look, what should we do? With no guidance or shepherding, we are free to stand and look wherever we want while the action happens in a far corner of the museum.

The final scene ends on a rather ambiguous note. In fact, there is no real sense of an ending, just a whimpering out of the action. It was only as three women disappeared behind a cabinet that the audience decided of its own accord to see what was happening at the front of the floor, whereupon the evening concluded. In a production like this –especially in a production like this – the ending should be clear, should be built up to; should be climactic (pardon the pun). Instead, it seems to fall over itself, as three men sit on a couch staring vacantly at the audience.

The performers – actors, dancers, practitioners, and medical professionals alike – are reasonably strong, even if some characters do seem completely incongruous to the piece’s purpose. There were some opening night nerves from some of the main performers, but this was counterbalanced by the energy of the four girls who burst through scenes, dragging us onwards through the blend of images and ideas. Special mention is due to the music, performed live on a double-bass, trumpet, and found objects, by Clayton Thomas and Shota Matsumura respectively. Despite the sparse instrumentation, they opened up an unsettling and elegantly haunting sonic dimension which enlivened some of the slower moments.

Contrary to what LRT state on their website, I don’t think this production will “change the way [we] see the built environment, museum curation and mental health in the [twenty-first] century.” There are some good ideas here, except they are presented in a gratuitous and self-indulgent way, buried beneath ample amounts of superfluous material which, after a while, seems like flogging the proverbial (and, in this case, present) dead cat.

I’m still not sure what the horse was all about.

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