Just Us – Melbourne Fringe REVIEW
Friday September 19, 2014
Promenade. The word suggests a kind of passing by, pleasurable viewing. Like a stroll along the beachfront, or watching pretty girls in pure dresses twirling. On Friday September 19 I viewed Polytropic Production’s promenade theatre performance, Just Us. Directed by Mitch Jones, Just Us played at The Substation as a part of the 2014 Melbourne Fringe Festival. Attending this performance I gained an improved respect and awe for promenade and immersive performance and its capabilities. However, it also prompted me to question the limitations of a spectator’s experience, and the boundaries of my own site-specific and immersive theatre work.
At The Substation, the arrival process was similar to airport security. Bags checked, metal detected, take this form (pictured below), follow instructions, see the ‘friendly’ (read intimidating) uniformed staff if you have any hesitations. Do not hesitate.
The audience milled in the foyer, where it was difficult to distinguish where audience ended and spectacle began. Performers entered and loitered, subject to the same security and control processes as us plebs. Their main distinction was the raise in their voice and seriousness of their stare: the spectators were the only ones smiling – because of uncertainty as much as humour. “Do you understand what promenade theatre is?” demanded a security guard of me while I was looking about for clues. I was smiling to manage that awkwardness you feel when exposed and confronted by the authorities, even though certain of your innocence.
“It’s, like a roving performance, right?”
“Well, yes…You have to walk around. Curiosity is the key.” And with that cryptic resolution I was ushered off with the rest by a very likeable secretary character, who lead us into the space, and reminded us all that curiosity is the key.
Our adequate curiosity was met with a dreamscape office environment. Memories of Centrelink hit home hard. Smoke clouds and a maze of white walls, people with purpose passed us as we explored the cubicles: documentation, prosecutor and attorney offices, certification. We spread out, trying to fill out our ‘forms’, watching scenes unfold as we stumbled across them. We found acrobats hanging over desks – their foot, a foot in front of our faces – and impressive caricatures juggling documentation amid spinning balls, toppling mountains of paperwork and balancing stationary. The metaphor of the justice system as a circus was strong and left a remarkable impact on the audience who were required to not only view, but also participate, in the chaos.
A bell rang and we were marched single file into the courtroom where we watched the proceedings of cases we had been introduced to in our promenade experience. The judge threw misogynistic quips at the female prosecutor amid clowning interludes from circus performers. Meanwhile, A mother and her son fought for a fair go; An academic attempted to undermine the authorities; A young humanitarian urged for justice, for democracy, for equality, for freedom of speech, and, mirroring her words, a young female acrobat twisted in the ropes that would eventually hang the humanitarian.
A powerful presentation of a relevant and important premise, Just Us reflected the true and ugly qualities of our justice system, and evoked a streamline thought process of critical engagement from the audience. However, I cannot help but wonder if the powers of promenade theatre are limited by targeting a particular spectator type. This kind of immersive, participatory theatre requires not only curiosity, but courage, confrontation, and a generally extraverted or outgoing individual. Those with more confidence would gain an undoubtedly improved and different experience to those who kept to the shadows, who wondered but did not engage with the world they were given. In this environment the narrative was progressed by role-play, confrontation, and engagement with others. Through performer/audience relations we met and understood characters and their stories. Spectators with less confidence may have missed out on the experience others more boisterous and playful were privy to.
In Mitch Jones’ Just Us, I was engaged and entertained, and his imagined world that we were invited to explore was flawless and so incredibly appropriate to the enigma and heart of his production. However, as I am not naturally as outwardly bubbly and open as some of my friends, I did have to work for my engaged experience – and this isn’t always something I want from theatre. Always, I want to be intellectually stimulated, entertained and changed. Sometimes, I want that to happen effortlessly.
This makes me reflect on my own work and has encouraged me to play the spectator more in considering the artistic choices I make when attempting to generate ground-breaking immersive theatre experiences. How do I make something that is applicable and enjoyable to people of all walks of life, and more so, to non-traditional theatre goers? How do I entertain in a way that I trick people into venturing outside of their comfort zone, and experiencing a different and otherwise inaccessible perspective? I hope that it is through an immersive and engaged theatre experience, and until now, I was certain it was. Is holding up the mirror enough? Or is allowing the audience to step into the reflection better?
Reviewed by Nina Barry-Macaulay – September 2014