Attic Erratic’s critically acclaimed The City They Burned returns to Melbourne for a strictly limited season, after two years in the making and a near sold out season in the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival.
As someone who’s bulk of biblical knowledge comes from musical theatre and references in plays, the story of the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah is not one I am familiar with. Now that I have read up on it following the show, I have to agree with The City They Burned’s writer Fleur Kilpatrick when she asks in her program notes “Why (does this story) exist?”
The original text, as found referenced throughout the Book of Genesis and the Hebrew Bible, as well as the New Testament and the Qur’an , is set in five cities along the Jordan River, in an area comparable to the Garden of Eden. Two angelic visitors visit Sodom and dine with Lot, (the nephew of Abraham, and local townsmen). The men of Sodom demand that Lot bring out the angels, so “they may know them” (lie with them, or have sex with them), and after refusing the men of Sodom, Lot offers up his two daughters, who have “not yet known men” for the men of the down to do with them as they please.
The angels announce their plan to destroy Sodom, acting out the divine judgment of God. The Lord advises he will spare the cities if they can find 50 righteous people who lived there. After failing this, the angels instruct Lot to take his family and flee Sodom, and Sodom and three other neighboring cities are destroyed in fire and brimstone.
These are cities that have become synonymous with sin and crimes against nature in both religious and popular cultures, and are still being debating by architects as to whether there is any historical accuracy to the fable.
With that being one of the more confronting religious tales I have heard, writer Kilpatrick has managed to create an inventive, thought provoking and modern retelling of a shocking story. This is not something I would expect someone to write a play about, but if there is anywhere to be blessed with such creative thinking, it is the Melbourne independent theatre scene, and Kilpatrick deservedly won Best Emerging Writer in last year’s Melbourne Fringe Festival. Set in a repressed future, dystopian like setting (not unlike The Hunger Games is), The City They Burned is an emotional rollercoaster story of the hard working everyman. Kilpatrick sums it up well: “We are human and we are … complicated” and this is a story of the depth and desperation of humanity.
The show tells a story against the power struggle of government, dominant and controlling over it’s helpless public. Lot, the head of Sodom, has gathered his best workers from the factories to greet and impress the inspectors who have come to decide the fate of the city. With his family and his best workers by his side, he has come to plead against the suspected “discontinuation” of the surrounding cities. With themes that border on The Hunger Games and the districts struggle against the Capital, modern dystopian and apocalyptic fiction, and an uncomfortable Nazi Germany vibe, the show tackles the struggle of a public at the mercy of an anonymous corporate company who controls the land, and their robotic like inspectors Gadreel and Wormwood.
This is where you as the audience come in- when you enter the Auspicious Arts office; the first act of the show takes place standing and moving through the office. A unique immersive experience, the show is a slow starter- you are greeted by Lot’s daughters Pheine and Thamma, who are all to eager to share off their father’s offices. The audience becomes the crowd of factory workers, and once the show gets underway there is a major shift in atmosphere, from awkward almost networking to performance, as we are introduced to each character.
The space is sparse but warm as it is the existing Auspicious Arts office space, with furniture pushed back against the walls and the set dressed for an office party, decorated by posters with the factory’s improved performance. The lighting is an effective use of the existing office lights, plus a combination of standalone lamps to create ambiance. Complete with drinks and snacks, the office party continues until the inspectors arrive, who immediately begin to inspect the audience of factory workers, picking on me for my “interesting scarf” and critiquing the characters and their home. The first act is a shocking emotional journey of the people of Sodom begging for information from it’s neighboring cities, and pleading their case to the inspectors, before the audience are ordered out as Lot is left to
The second act takes place in the theatre at Auspicious Arts, and I found the transition between the two acts to be confusing and lacking in information that wasn’t totally filled in across the second half of the show. Picking up after Lot and his family have fled Sodom and it’s destruction, the second act takes place on an incredibly detailed and well dressed set, in a cave full of scrounged supplies, broken furniture and sealed off from the outside world with thick black plastic. A detailed post apocalyptic space, the family is confined to this space and we watch as descend into madness, or survival. Compared to the second act, the first act is interactive, and full of heart and empathy, but the second act pushes the boundaries and presents a view most theatre goers may not like to think about- what would we be like if we were trapped in a cave, with only three other people for the rest of our days? Would we cope, or would we slowly lose our minds, our sense of morality and our boundaries?
Performances by the cast are dedicated, emotionally jarring and unwavering in character, with particular mentions to Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks as Pheine and Thamma, the two daughters of Lot who go from appeasing young girls helping their father, to young women struggling with their sexual awakening, and their eventual decent into madness following the fall of Sodom. An emotional and heart breaking performance by Jessica Tanner as Ado, loving wife and fiercely protective mother, and manic energy from Scott Gooding as Lot and the rest of the cast round out an incredibly engaging performance.
The struggle portrayed in the show is real, and it hits home all too closely with the current refugee crisis around the world, the Government’s treatment of Aboriginal communities and how disposable the corporate work place has become. As someone who went into a major performance review at work the day after seeing the show, the notion that a lack in performance is punished with potential extinction is both shocking, and an unfortunate reality in many countries current economic climate. The show embraces the political themes of today and smashes them together with the struggles of the biblical tale.
What needs to be addressed is the discussion and dramatisation of sexual violence that occurs during the show. This show by no means endorses the violence, but keeps the element of Lot offering his daughters up to the sexually crazed men of Sodom, to try and appease the inspectors and save them from being sodomised (yes, unfortunately this story is where the word is said to have originated). This show comes with trigger warnings, as we see dramatized violence of the inspectors against men of Sodom, Isaac and Zadkiel, and the dramatized sexual violence as they fight back against the inspectors, and then exert their dominance over Lot’s daughters. This show will be provoking many conversations and questions around consent and rape culture for years to come, and may need to be followed up with education, safe discussion and a hot beverage following the show.
The show has a wicked sense of humour, which it needs to break up the severity of its material. The cast and their interactions with the audience, the dry wit of the text and the shock of some moments leave laugh out loud moments for the audience, and are a welcome release of the show’s tension.
Direction by Danny Delahunty is fluid and well thought out, working with a dynamic and varied space, and embracing the change in room and setting half way through the show to create a rich and diverse experience. The actors move through the space with a manic grace, creating individual spaces and environments within an open plan office, and they all own the uniqueness of the immersive space and work the room at all angles. Delahunty and his team are to be commended on their ability to adapt this work to a new space.
The show is above all about humanity, the fight for survival and the struggle against oppressive power. This show is absolutely not for the faint hearted, with it’s themes of sexual violence and the first act spent standing, but it is a rich, well crafted piece of theatre not to be missed. Playing until Sunday, 13th of September, catch this immersive theatre gem before it heads to the Brisbane Festival later this year.