If there is only one piece of theatre you see this year, make it Trustees.
Donning an online banner screaming the bold “CENSORED”, Trustees tells of its censorship in an ironic twist of intense, involved theatrics. Ordering attention for its full length, the production delves furiously into the catacombs buried deep beneath Aussie soils to uncover what is dubbed The Great Australian Silence, wherein tunnels and tombs of crucial conversations lie stashed, disregarded and forgotten. With each story, each sound, each sight an alienating yet alluring sensation, Trustees takes the audience on a sight-seeing journey exploring the systemic flaws and failures of our current political climate in a way that both scars the soul with perspective and defines reality beyond the screen – the parts of the story that remain censored. It tells what lay often untold, and by the mouths of those who deserve to tell it; and it blazingly demands that we listen to not only them, but our own inner dialogue as we interpret their stories.
With logos patterned around the high walls and screens blaring news stories that pertain to the same nothing vitality as a Letter to the Editor section in a horoscope magazine, we are reminded of our corporate media nation and the lull of news and brands that stalk every corner. The raked arena-style audience in their casual seating takes on a jury-like air, subconsciously assuming that immediate political scene whilst surrounding the five actors as they slowly wander the space and engage the audience in professional tongues. With all of these elements playing upon walking into the theatre and sitting down, there is a sense of vague dissonance: what is real and what is theatre, are these people or are these performers, will I be entertained or will I be discomforted? It is the exact thoughts we have when we see our politicians on our screens. And amidst the bubble of excitement and noise, there is a dread that hangs mustily in the air.
With script written by duo Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin (Directors of Belarus Free Theatre) and reinterpreted our cast at hand, there is no room for quaint dishonesty. With blatant remarks on political corruption and media consumption capitalising on the systems of abuse and marketing the stories of others’ woe, the team of five become the media discussing the hot topic of whether government funding for the arts does more harm than good. Melding their way backstage after the shallow debacle, our five cabaneros quickly create a plan on how to capitalise on Australia’s growing need for cultural inclusion in a farcical way, generating nonsensical blueprints of an underground theme park to represent their dignifying the native culture. This soon unravels into individual stories told by the cast as individuals – people, not performers – in what becomes a night of rage, of collapse, of fear, of agony, of grief, of the struggle of trying to empathise with a perspective you just cannot comprehend. Directed also by these writers, they take the stories and slice the audience’s defences down with shards of phrase, colloquialism, and an unseen reality that further reiterates not only the dissonance but the connection between all the privileged and non- in the room.
In a space that was vastly bare, the lighting design masterfully became the walls and barriers of the space in a way that paved the confines of the actors whilst only further accentuating their messages. Sound Designer Amelia Lever-Davidson proves herself as undeniably formidable in her landscape of lighting; whether paving pathways around the outskirts to be traced like a tightrope, or spotlighting a moment of fear and freeze framing it dramatically in a vignette of twisted fate, Lever-Davidson harnesses the show’s true intentions in a way that body cannot, and allows the piece to transcend the theatre and become a thousand different worlds and minds. She is truly an artist with her work.
With sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward, we are accompanied at many moments throughout the piece with a reaction of sound to bolster the intent of the moment. Whether it’s the news theme ditty or a lulling instrumental break, Woodward’s brilliant inflections of sound and music reiterated both extrinsically the behaviour of the performer and intrinsically the mindset they were in as each performer explored their stories. It is worth noting that, despite having access to composing a consistent underscore or making an overly complex soundscape for each and every article or action, Woodward’s allowance of incredible lengths of silence show that he grasped that, just like in music, there is beauty in the pauses we take and the silences had.
A show like this thrives off minimal changes to the physical state. With set and costumes designed by Romanie Harper, and including props, makeup and hair, we are exposed to such a refined piece of raw theatre that is embellished by nuance of the physical world to keep us both intact and transition us completely. We get a table set up meekly with mere chairs, a cloth, and some dinnerware and candles to present a usual table setting; throughout the course of the piece, the table opens up to reveal a pool (with real water for drowning) and two garden beds (for poppy-planting), as well as seemingly posing as both a sex dungeon and a sacrificial altar. Our costumes are quite minimal, with suits and one-pieces for our formal business attire that slowly strip off or become dishevelled as the performers lose themselves with their unraveling narratives; with nudity involved, we have one performer douse herself in traditional body paint to create a heart-achingly apparent image of contrast between herself and white man, as impressed by white man in his reaction to her in all her glory. The minimal need for the physical brought the actors in their most honest and authentic selves forward to adopt their roles, and in doing so, brought their world to life.
Uniquely in an acting piece, we had an interesting scene where a fiery tango of mistrust and fury broke out amongst our five performers, as choreographed by Bridget Fiske. In impassioned and broken flings, the five ungraciously reach for each others’ throats and clasp one another in tight embraces, kicking out in fits of vexation as they fought back against their captors. This, under a wash of typical tango red, proves an extremely powerful enactment of the throes of professionals under pressure and in a cut-throat environment wherein there can only be one governor, thus one government.
Then, of course, there were the divine actors.
Daniel Schlusser, a man of dignified approach to business, spirals into a caricature of the white government loving itself in a dirty, abusive way; after his extreme outburst, he explores the pains of his life – his grandmother passing from old age, his extended family’s history of domestic abuse – in a tragic light, all the while being accused of not knowing true pain due to his privilege. His white manhood becomes a conduit for the others to express their stories unabashedly, and his bare figure stands as a constant remainder onstage of the imprint of white man upon his peers.
Tammy Anderson, starting off as the insane woman who laughs at the remorse of others and confusion of an uncontrolled situation, marks herself as the Aboriginal; her monologue of showing us just how humane she is – just how much like the rest of the world she is – as she paces around the room slowly and allows all to gently touch her is one of the most breath-taking moments in a show of thousands, and her transition from proper privilege in her posture and poise to a more colloquial and laid-back nature goes to undermine all the others of their privileges as she addresses them head-first and head-on to confront them on their definitions of pain.
Natasha Herbert, who initiated the piece as an ex-Olympian with a strong sense of honour, turned into herself as a white woman who felt out of place in the current political climate; potting the poppies in memory of those lost to her, she spoke of how she wanted so much to make those who felt lost instead feel at home, but how she herself did not know how to interpret or work with the shift in her world, and that, as a white woman who “had it good”, she knew she could not speak on their behalf and felt she did not deserve a place there, and so felt less valid in an ironic flip of status.
Hazem Shammas steals the spotlight as the host of the show and the quick-tongued, unfiltered idealist, before becoming the aggressively apathetic Arab who condemns all before him; while at first seeming violent and uncapped, Shammas proves himself an invaluable actor in that he strings the audience high in shock and then breaks them down again with the pains of his migration, shedding light on the reasons behind his holistic loathing in a way that makes it heart-breakingly acceptable to be so harsh, so cruel, so destructive.
Niharika Senapati, strutting the stage initially as ‘Young Australian of the Year’, became the broken girl with an internally-clutching fear that only grew; retelling the accounts of the guilt that seeped from her pores when she saw that, while she lived a first-world lifestyle, people of her culture were being brought to pain and death at her same young age, Senapati becomes a totem for the youth of our today and how they feel when they see the systemic dissonance that was lain by those before them. Was she made to be the voice of the rising generation? However true, her story is a by-product our Australia’s systemic bias. Her story becomes our story.
In one of the most brilliant pieces of theatre to have previewed in the Melbourne International Arts Festival and, perhaps, in Melbourne wholly, Trustees does the unthinkable by stripping away the mundane everyday of white privilege and making Australia see Australia for what it really is: enslaved by the threadbare tapestry of racism and cultural dissonance that weaves underneath our facade of proud acceptance, tied off at the ends by an apathetic government whose only concern is keeping Australia contained through empty discussion and the censorship of important stories. And with this idea imprinted upon our broadened minds, the houselights come up and the screens around the theatre become alive with a debate on whether Vienna or Melbourne serve the best coffee, once again reminding us that these are the battles we are choosing to fight and not the battles we ought to be fighting. We hide from our truth, so who can we call upon as our trustees?