If these walls could talk – or sing, or dance, or make site-specific theatre – what stories might they tell you?
NORPA's Dreamland. Photo credit: Kurt Petersen.
Taking your seat in the pews in Eureka Hall – a small community hall situated in the rolling hills north-east of Lismore, NSW – one automatically looks around for the all-too-familiar honour boards listing the names of locals who fought in two World Wars, and the frozen-in-amber portrait of an eternally young Queen that traditionally grace such buildings’ timber walls.
They're here, but as your eye lights upon the replica portrait of Elizabeth II you realise it’s not alone: two other depictions of the Queen hang nearby, each showing the monarch a little older, each from a different age. It’s a beautiful and subtle representation of the distillation of memory which fills this intimate communal space – even when its doors are barred and the hall itself stands empty.
Eureka Hall is a place where generations meet and time dreams. Its overlapping eras and composite histories are given weight and words by playwright Janis Balodis and director Julian Louis in the latest site-specific production by Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA), Dreamland.
Sometimes dreams turn into nightmares – men suffer in stoic silence on lonely acres of cleared land, families go to seed and renovations last forever. ‘It’s a Queenslander – it will never be finished!’ comes the tree-changer's anguished cry. But amidst the tears there are triumphs. Sometimes they’re personal – making your partner shine on the dancefloor or negotiating with the hall committee to hold an end-of-year dance. And sometimes they’re artistic: the successful evocation of intimacy and history, of place and country; dramatising the impacts of far-off events and their local echoes, the fractures and slippages of time.
Photo credit: Kate Holmes
As an outsider, watching Dreamland is both enchanting and frustrating. Certain references (such as a comment about Catholic dances in South Lismore) provoke knowing laughter from the audience; a private joke the visitor can never be privy to – and so it should be. Some secrets should remain ambiguous. There’s forever the sense of something greater lurking unseen, outside the hall just out of reach. But what is presented to us is joyful and poignant and potent, skilfully drawing connections between past and present, between community and history, resulting in a richly engaging and cleverly crafted work.
Occasionally one hankers for slightly more rigour and a degree less populism; scenes involving the culture clash between established farmers and the hippies of the Seventies are so broadly drawn as to border on caricature, while the production's choreography is energetic but unadventurous. The lack of an Indigenous perspective – the stories of the Bundjalung people, which began long before Eureka was hewn from The Big Scrub and continue uninterrupted today – feels like an oversight, despite the unifying and striking presence of Kirk Page as the production’s narrator, song-man and ringleader.
Performances delight, especially Toni Scanlon and Katia Molino, who bring charm and truthfulness to their roles. Circa founding member Darcy Grant’s acrobatic skills also enhance the production, as does the quicksilver score performed live by an accomplished trio of musicians.
The sound design subtly emphasises key words, enhancing the viewer’s emotional response, while sounds of croaking frogs and peals of thunder drift in through the open windows from the outside world, further blurring the boundaries between real and imagined, history and memory.
Throughout the production, with performers close enough to touch and swung axes near enough to unnerve, there’s a beautiful sense of art not only imitating life, but enhancing and preserving it. No, more than preserving – reinvigorating. The past comes to life in Dreamland, but it’s when the present steps in – when couples hasten to the floor to dance and the loving looks between participants are truthful, not performed – that the work has its greatest resonance.
Life is stranger than fiction, and more glorious too. But as a double act? They’re delightful and memorable in equal measure. Partner dancing really is like telling a story.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
A NORPA production
Director/Devisor: Julian Louis
Writer/Devisor: Janis Balodis
Musical Director/Lead Musician: Shenzo Gregory
Performer/Devisors: Phil Blackman, Darcy Grant, Katia Molino, Toni Scanlan & Kirk Page
Percussionist: Ben Walsh
Double Bass: Barry Hill (Jamie Birrell, 1st, 9th & 10th December)
Assistant Director: Kate McDowell
Movement Consultant: Kirk Page
Lighting Designer: Karl Johnson
Costume Designer: William Kutana
Creative Producer: Marisa Snow
Styling: Naya Crookshanks
Eureka Hall, Eureka NSW
23 November – 10 December 2016
Richard Watts travelled to the Northern Rivers region as a guest of NORPA.