Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Chat

Photo by Prudence Upton
JR Brennan and David Woods, presents THE CHAT, a devised work, in Track 6, Carriageworks, as part of the Sydney Festival. 16-20 January.

THE CHAT, is a very interesting work.

JR Brennan has worked as a parole officer in Sydney's Long Bay Correctional Centre, and as an artist, created a series of performance workshops with Performance maker and choreographer Ashley Dyers for ex-offenders in the Melbourne area. THE CHAT "created in collaboration with participants from these workshops and leading criminologists, is a work that fundamentally challenges our notions of criminal identity and asks the audience to play judge."

This work has been in an evolving process since 2014 and has been performed in Melbourne and Brisbane, with David Woods (Co-Artistic Director of Ridiculusmus) as the principal performer. The other performers are Arthur Bolkas, Shane Brennan, Nicholas Maltzahn, Ray Morgan, John Tjepkema, Simon Warner and Les Wiggins. Four of these performers are actual ex-offenders and parolees.

The work is performed on a long purple carpeted traverse stage, with audience seated either side. At one end is a screened space that has an office referral desk and a heightened lounging chair. At the other end is a cubed metal space with desk and two chairs in front of a screen on which live footage is thrown during THE CHAT.

We are greeted by the company and guided to seats and engaged, some of us, in conversation. The performance begins, and after introductions to the company and their roles in the performance to come, a series of workshop exercises are shown - trust games etc - then one of the ex-offenders is selected and begins a participatory interview. And, it becomes a role-play routine where, actor David Woods assumes the identity of the ex-offender and the ex-offender assumes the identity of the parole officer.

Essentially it is an extended improvised process between the two men where the audience become privileged with the background and circumstances of the 'criminal identity' of the offender - on my night, we met in detail, Les Wiggins. Each night, during this season, a different 'identity' is the subject of the core revelation. At the conclusion of this intriguing process two or three members of the audience are invited to participate in the discussion of the 'mock' Parole Board, whilst the rest us are encouraged to discuss what we have witnessed. The audience are invited to ask Les any question for further information. In due course the audience are invited to decide on whether the parolee ought to be given another opportunity or re-imprisoned. We do. Then the "Parole Board" delivers its verdict.

The performance is designed to bring a community visibility to the difficulties of the parolee in his social re-engagement with the real world and the intricate balance the responsible Parole Board has in its delivery of decision, especially to those who have broken conditions of their original parole in seeking a re-trusting.

It is a totally engaging experience and one that has the strangely conflicted emotional wants of an audience introduced into the complex history of an individual who we know has been declared a 'criminal' and who is at our 'mercy' as to the hopefulness of his future, having failed already once the Justice System's trust. The performance is non-dramatic, it has a feeling of actuality without any gratuitous feel of intruding or peep-show indulgence. Certainly, one is left with much to discuss and ponder after the performance has finished. It is immaculately organised and has the tentative feel of real-life vulnerability and the possibility of crashing into failure - it puts the audience into a defensive state of anxiety mixed with good will.

THE CHAT is an experience of some real worth.

David Williamson's JACK MANNING TRILOGY (FACE TO FACE - 2000; CONVERSATION - 2001; CHARITABLE INTENT - 2001), are a series of plays about community conferencing where the extended families - the 'victims' - meet the offender in a an attempt of reconciliation, and they gave (give) insight into the complexities involved with human yearnings and the rigidity of the Law, and they are entirely absorbing (one better than the others, particularly), but are conventionally bound by the structure of the 'well made play' into some decided bourgeois order with not much visceral risk.

Similarly, but in content of a different kind, the the plays of prisoner Jim McNeil: THE CHOCOLATE FROG - 1970; and HOW DOES YOUR GARDEN GROW - 1974, gives privy into the complicated humanity of the prisoner and it resonated within its rougher but well made play boundaries.

THE CHAT is of an entirely different kind of experience. Not quite the experience of an audience watching, at invitation, the enactment of a play performed by asylum internees concerning a murder as in Peter Weiss' , 1963 play: THE PERSECUTION AND ASSASSINATION OF JEAN-PAUL MARAT AS PERFORMED BY THE INMATES OF THE ASYLUM OF CHARENTON UNDER THE DIRECTION OF MARQUIS DE SADE (MARAT/SADE, for short), that turns into an actual witnessed murder, THE CHAT, has some of that play's anticipatory subliminal human fascination that keeps one, gently, but expectantly on edge, and prepared for shock.

This play has won many awards and this production is a fascinating learning experience. A real Festival event.

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