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The Age review for Earshot

30 November 2017
Cameron Woodhead

★★★★

We’ve all overheard random conversations in public spaces. Most of us respond with a private smile, a discreet eye roll, perhaps a sympathetic glance or look of alarm. With Earshot, experimental theatre-maker Kate Hunter has taken casual eavesdropping to a whole new level, creating a live performance from snatches of speech she’s transcribed over years of listening.

Hunter’s text is a revelation, thrumming with the tragicomic pulse of life as it is experienced rather than as we imagine it to be. Yet the deliberate craft brought to these spontaneous veins of verbatim theatre heightens their emotive flow and resonance. In the safety of an audience, all those guarded reactions you might have on the tram – from delighted to appalled – are loosed from inhibition.

The two-hander (Hunter, Josephine Lange) begins with a light nod to meta-theatre: Hunter enters blathering fragments of foyer chat. Short scenes build from there, layering distinctive voices and scenarios, often to humorous effect.

A woman having a colossal whinge might claim Centrelink ripped her off $750,000, only for her wild exaggeration to be countered by a scene, much later, where the absurd inflexibility of bureaucrats in a Medicare office (disrupted by the actors simulating birdsong on weird, pipe-sprouting contraptions) seems even more ludicrous.

 Snatches of an overheard rant about gardening become deliciously dirty when most of the speech is drowned out by power-tools (recreated here though the inspired use of kitchen implements). And there’s an oddball frisson to imagining, which the quickfire characterisation lets you do quite vividly, the people behind all these flawed voices. Darker tones eventually permeate. The labile juxtaposition of an elderly woman with aphasia, set against racist relatives being anti-Semitic about her doctor. Middle-aged blokes – man-children, really – haranguing a mate with diabetes, for not cutting loose and getting drunk with them on holidays.

he most confronting material involves men mistreating women. One screed is so unhinged by cruelty and rage it seems to be directed at a dog. At least, you hope to God it’s a dog. A later, most extended one, is clearly a torrent of abuse a man hurls at his wife while, grotesquely, painting himself as the victim.

Earshot is a unique and novel theatrical experiment. The meticulously considered interplay of visual design, soundscape and performance captures both the bleakness, and the unrehearsed comedy and poetry, of everyday life in a way that should make every aspiring playwright and scriptwriter want to see it, to improve their dialogue as much as anything.

It’s found drama – funny, hideous and thought-provoking – that speaks to the ways we need to listen, as well as what we say and how.

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