High Performance Packing Tape Review by DJ Pearce

*.5 stars

Expectation setting is just as important in theatre as it is in other parts of life. Set expectations too low and nobody will come to watch. Set them too high, and you’ll disappoint your audience. For a production billed as part of the Melbourne International Arts Festival, there’s already a baseline expectation of quality and interest. Add to that some flashy advertising copy and you’d be forgiven for feeling pretty good about your $39 purchasing decision. However, High Performance Packing Tape failed on all accounts to properly prepare an audience for the utterly inane content it proffered as some sort of performance.

Packing Tape’s advertised premise stated that “the sterile language of workplace safety, risk assessment and best practice [would be] thrown to the wind” in an apparent critique or commentary on culture obsessed with risk-avoidance and occupational health and safety. A contemporary performance drawing from physical theatre, apparently dance or even circus, it comprised of a series of eight or nine activities or “stunts” performed using boxes, packing tape, common plastic chairs and other rigging items to place the performer in moments of brief, apparent physical danger. However, in contrast to the marketing material and potential for meaningful comment, the wordy foreword in the program described a creative process driven entirely by materials, and a production unlaboured by “characters or story or all that stuff”.

There was still hope that there may be some sense of self-awareness or humour in placing a performer in such ridiculous predicaments. Even those mild hopes were dashed, as the first jokes of “chapters” in a sparse list of set-ups and “punchlines” rolled off and bored the audience to despair.

When you tell a joke, there’s a certain acceptance that a short set-up can allow for a mediocre or lazy punchline, as in the one-liner. These can even be witty, and if strung together cleverly enough, occasionally hilarious when taken in such a group. The longer we spend on the set-up, however, the more rewarding the punchline needs to be to gain permission to tell the next joke.

In this hour-long show, there was perhaps one good idea, one good “punchline”, and we were made to wait through several poor ones, each with its own 5-7 minute setup. To attempt to be even handed, sure, it was an interesting use of medium to perform these “stunts”, but 90% of the performance runtime was spent watching a man move and stack boxes, move and stack chairs, or move the chairs through a pile of the boxes – which is about as interesting to watch as it seems.

The audience on this reviewer’s night was fairly generous. While slow to start, there were occasional nervous giggles to break the tension, and some spattering attempts at applause at moments that seemed the most appropriate. It seems to be that if you can bore an audience for long enough, they’ll find the simplest things – like crawling on a box – worthy of applause. A lot of this acceptance seemed to be driven by one particularly boisterous audience member from the back, and it would be interesting to see how quiet and unimpressed the audience would have been without the prompting.

Supporting elements of the production were technically achieved well – the sound design, while too loud and occasionally obnoxious, did manage to hint at the beginnings of an immersive world. Lighting was also simple, but with so little substance to hang on to, neither were particularly outstanding.

There may be some innovation in High Performance Packing Tape – but by taking itself too seriously as “contemporary art” and ignoring the fundamentals, it comes off as an exercise, not a performance – and while there is room for that in the broadest sense of the artistic landscape, you should absolutely not charge $39 a ticket for it. In this reviewer’s opinion, the whole thing should be put in a box, taped up, and left on a shelf in the garage to collect dust.

High Performance Packing Tape played 2-6 October at Meat Market, North Melbourne, as part of the 2019 Melbourne International Arts Festival.