IT was a promising beginning. Adele Chynoweth’s “Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed” was performed under a facsimile of Goya’s “Saturn” by talented local actors Ben Drysdale and Ruth Pieloor and a legion of invisible writers.
The smaller of the Street Theatre’s performance spaces was packed with poets, thespians, musicians and art lovers, all celebrating Canberra’s talent.
The production was visually compelling with minimal setting and sombre lighting.
Actors Drysdale and Pieloor, each of whom had memorised more than 80 minutes of challenging poetry, gave compelling performances. Both sang throughout the production and played guitar. Drysdale, in particular, delighted the audience with his sonorous and lyrical voice, and Pieloor was remarkably versatile, capturing a wide range of emotions.
The text for “Under Sedation” is a pastiche drawn from among the very best poets and song writers connected with Canberra. Contributions from poets Omar Musa, Subhash Jaireth, Mark O’Connor, Geoff Page, Michael Byrne, Sarah Rice, John-Karl Stokes, Melinda Smith, P. S. Cottier, Lizz Murphy, Adrian Caesar, Paul Hetherington, Victoria McGrath, Vesna Cvjeticanin, Bela Farkas, Niloofar Fanaiyan, Sandra Renew, Malcolm Coller, Anita Patel, Aaron Kirby, Monique Suna and JC Inman were interleaved with verses from the past – David Campbell, Michael Dransfield, Alec Hope, Dorothy Auchterlonie Green and Kevin Gilbert.
Chynoweth’s collage also paid homage to Canberra’s songwriters including Fred Smith, Cracked Actor, Sidewinder, The Lighthouse Keepers, The Andi and George Band, Coda Conduct, Woden Valley Youth Choir, Peking Duk, You Am I, Fun Machine and Falling Joys. Ambient musical interludes by Shoeb Ahmed were interleaved among the set numbers.
So, so many cooks in the kitchen.
According to the website, this work was compiled from verses “reworked, remixed, re-licked and re-loaded into a thought-provoking story with a mix of characters in Canberra silhouettes played by two actors, unravelling the inhumanity of humanity and their complacency, loneliness, anger, loss, and joy.”
The trouble was, there didn’t seem to be much reworking happening at all – it seemed to be mostly collage, a cut-and-paste job, a medley, like the ones sung at the end of a Broadway show to recap the interesting bits of the show. The intention was clearly to create something like heteroglossia, the single object fixed by multiple gazes – a nod, perhaps, to Eliot’s intertextual Wasteland. But pastiche is only effective when disparate voices are used to recontextualise an underlying and authentic voice. There has to be such an authentic voice underneath, holding it all together, giving it shape – but “Under Sedation” was far more like a script written by a committee.
As Jonathan Meades noted, somewhat unkindly, “pastiche is like anything else . . . there’s good pastiche and there’s bad pastiche. The pasticheur is a sort of chameleon. The problems arise when the chameleon is a loser chameleon who has no sense of shape or is colour-blind: being colourblind is a disability which real chameleons quite properly fear…”
Lizz Murphy’s chilling poem on child sexual slavery, Michael Byrne’s account of drug abuse and Geoff Page’s retelling of the massacres of indigenous Australians reveal the poet as the conscience of community. Other poem fragments tackled child abuse in the Christian Church, the mistreatment of refugees, mental illness and pornography. Fragments eliding, one into the next, without gravitas or pause – like a lexicon of massive topics. Any one of these fine poems, written by leading literary figures like Melinda Smith, John-Karl Stokes, Mark O’Connor, could have formed the basis of an entire theatre piece. This work is just trying to do too much.
An overpopulation of authors, of poets and songwriters crowded out any coherent narrative. Songs, crammed into a dramatic line already distended by poetic fragments, caused actors to burst suddenly into song, without anyone really being sure why. The effect was unnerving. A cringeworthy hip-hop number, complete with hand gestures from the Bronx, was eclipsed by a mortifyingly awkward lap dance scene, engendering the kind of embarrassment you might feel discovering your mother in a swingers’ bar.
From Omar Musa’s gritty prose to the refined meters of Alec Hope, the voices in this work were drawn from a broad palette. Suspending disbelief, while channelling a revolving door of disparate poets, proved challenging for Drysdale and Pieloor. Many of these poems were written in first person and, brought into the service of an external narrative, they’ve lost some of their punkte, their point of connection. The authentic speaking “I” seemed removed, by one or two degrees, from the listener. Drysdale and Pieloor drew on colours from method, comedy and mime to bridge that gap and, for the most part, succeeded. But I wondered what the point of it all was. I wondered what this production hoped to contribute to the legacy of the great Alec Hope, whose poem, after which the show is named, was reduced to palimpsest.
“Under Sedation” represented the best and the worst of Canberra’s artistic world. It was a showcase of local talent: writers and musicians who deserve to be honoured. And it highlighted messages of empathy, equality and humanity, and that is admirable. But the artistic direction, the conception as an artwork, was terminally flawed. And despite the exemplary acting, the brilliant songs and poems, somehow the whole was just not as good as its parts.