Trust is very important in the theatre. For instance, there's a trust between actors, and that's evidently clear with the two in this latest play for Belvoir's Downstairs Theatre space, "Cain and Abel". (Dana Miltins, who plays Cain, and Mary Helen Sassman, who takes on the role of Abel.) Emma Valente, director and co-creator (with Kate Davis) of the work, says in her program notes that she "began by casting two women, hoping to forge new territory…" It is a study – for it is not a play with any strong sense of narrative (at least that this critic could detect) – of violence, most potently against women. It is also something that I would not recommend.
Cain (Dana Miltins) and Mary Helen Sassman (Abel). Photo by Brett Boardman.
For, you see, there is another, perhaps more important, trust in the theatre, and that is between the actors and their audience. And in this case – or at least for this critic – this trust was taken and trampled on repeatedly. It's not that the actors broke the fourth wall and coated the audience in fake blood, ruining our outfits and making us squelch in our boots on the way home. Nor was it a constant tricking of expectations or assault of loud music (although there was a bit of music that was slightly uncomfortable in its volume). No, it was utter boredom, basically, that sealed the deal for me.
The set is a sloped perspex box – quite a huge box in the cramped Downstairs space – that is, at the start, filled with theatrical haze. There's a tinge of blue and gray about it all, and it piques the interest nicely. The play starts, the two actors are revealed to be standing in the room as the haze nozzle is turned down somewhat, and we begin an 8 minute sequence of slow movements. They walk. They press up against the glass like mimes in slow motion. They open a box that looks to contain dry ice and spit out meat and tiny eggs held within their mouths into it. But, in effect, not much happens. It isn't until around 17 minutes (I was clocking it, dear reader, by this stage), that we heard a sound that would be classified as the English language. It was a short voiceover, narrating part of the Bible, I believe (from where the story of Cain and Abel comes from). At this point in time the two women were dressed as knights in armour, and not much ado happened there either. It wasn't until around 32 minutes into the play – that is, the halfway point – that the actors physically spoke. This is why the trust was broken.
There were scenes after the halfway point that were interesting. That had an ability to provoke some thoughts. That set the nerves aflutter, even. For example, one of the best scenes involved the constant interrogation of one friend of another's black eye, with the questioner accepting none of the increasingly bewildering answers that never hit the truth (that a man had hit her). But none of those had any of the impact they should have, because after half an hour of torture, this critic was in no mood to accept any offers that the play might have, finally, been making to me. After sitting through half an hour of impenetrable explorations of what one presumes was violence – and there was plenty of time to find the penetrable in it if there had been any, although very little desire to sift through the few specks we were given – everything after was tainted. But even if it hadn't been tainted, to ask an audience to sit through the first half is like expecting customers at a restaurant to pay to churn their own icecream before they're allowed to have dessert.
The "ongoing conversation" that is THE RABBLE are, according to the program description, "one of Australia's leading avant-garde contemporary theatre companies" – and this critic had heard rumours of good shows been done by them in Melbourne- but this one is Sydney is not particularly enjoyable at all.