‘Walk warily!’ the actor says, seemingly staring straight at me. ‘Remember, sister/ we are under sedation’. The line comes from AD Hope’s poem, Under Sedation, which also serves as the title of director and researcher Adele Chynoweth’s play at the Street Theatre. The work begins with two actors lying on the floor. Various pieces of rubbish surround them. On the walls above them hangs a graffiti version of the Goya painting of Saturn eating his child. As the actors rise from the floor, they begin to perform verse poetry.
Under Sedation is a compilation of over 30 Canberra poets and songwriters’ works. The poems are tied together by the thread of AD Hope’s opening poem and Omar Musa’s My Generation. In his poem Under Sedation, AD Hope explores the notion that we sedate ourselves to deal with things that we find difficult in our culture. The play asks: Are we ok? And if not, how do we acknowledge that? It collects a series of vignettes or small moments like those of a photo album. The images we see are of war, of pain, of boats full of refugees, of addicts of all sorts, of hope, and of lust. They are of individual suffering and of collective suffering such as that of the AIDS blanket, which is described in John-Karl Stoke’s poem as ‘a skin to cover the wound’. While the work is politically engaged, it is the poems themselves that do the hard work in ensuring that this is never overly didactic.
At a Meet the Maker session before the show, Chynoweth was eloquent and spoke of theatre as a space for thinking and feeling together. It’s about being exposed to the world, the suffering we can never turn off, and how that suffering enters into us, she said of her latest work. In choosing the poems, Chynoweth knew that they had to be able to be performed. She did not insist on them having been previously published: but rather hoped that if they moved her, they would move others. Chynoweth emphasised the importance of funding creative risks, of keeping a space open for projects that don’t necessarily have clear outcomes. The juxtapositions are a risk: some of them feel jarring, while others feel more seamless. Regardless of this, the play is at all times compelling.
The theatre is a three-dimensional space and while poetry serves as the backbone of this work, theatrical devices such as sound, set design and lighting are just as important to the show’s resolution as a whole. Shoeb Ahmad’s atmospheric sound design and the use of songs interspersed throughout the poems provide a strong sense of mood as well as some sort of ‘aural glue’. Likewise, the theatre-in-the-round is essential to our intimate reception of it. Imogen Keen’s set design is pared back and contained, collapsing the boundaries between the audience and the performers. There is an added level of voyeurism to this staging because, as Chynoweth explains, ‘we watch each other watching’.
The two performers, Ruth Pieloor and Ben Drysdale, succeed in embodying a multitude of different characters. They appear very vulnerable as performers, which is critical to the show’s authenticity. Sometimes the physical moments are more important than the text. We see the words of Bodies by Sarah Rice recreated before our very eyes in the hug of someone who is no longer in love with the body they are hugging. Likewise, the hollow physicality of a hunched-over powerful man shooting up in the harsh glow of a singular spotlight both moves and repulses us. Linda Buck’s lighting design is spare and restrained, illuminating the subjects simply for the most part. At several points, one of the two characters stands in the centre of the stage, and a four-point light spreads the shadow of their body in four different directions. In these moments they are strong and powerful, multiplying forth in time and space.
Chynoweth relies heavily on space to bring the words to life in Under Sedation. The body becomes part of a totally performative language that is larger than the spoken word. She explained, ‘if we’re going to bring poetry to the theatre we have to embody it, and we need to believe it’. The poems each have their own context that blurs somewhat into one. As the work progresses, it acquires a sort of narrative. Under Sedation is not prescriptive in terms of how we might experience it, but it definitely tugs us in certain directions. It argues powerfully for the full appreciation and valorisation of the arts in dark and challenging times. ‘I do not know how to envisage a future, to mend a world that is broken, to confront the difficult elements within us, in the absence of a poetic imagination,’ Chynoweth writes.
Towards the end of Omar Musa’s poem, he says, ‘My generation never stopped being children’. This idea of the child seems to permeate through the entirety of Under Sedation, both in the imagery of Goya’s painting and in the words that allude to the way we devour the next generation through war and fundamental violations of the environment. This loose thematic weave is one of many that allow us to find a way through the fragments.
Under Sedation combines the eloquence and astuteness of poetry with the vitality of theatre. This work is about place. Canberra is small: the director watches on, and one of the poets sits next to me. However, its explorations are larger and more unbounded than a single place. When I come out of the theatre, I feel thrilled; as if there is a light tingle spreading across my skin as I ride away.
Under Sedation is currently being performed at the Street Theatre until Saturday 14 October.