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Review: Bare Witness on Theatre Notes

This review of Bare Witness was written by Alison Croggon for Theatre Notes. See it in its original context here.

I’m loath to say this, for several reasons, but nevertheless: sometimes you have to point out the obvious. (In Ms TN’s case, pointing out the obvious is my raison d’etre). The City at Red Stitch and La Mama’s Bare Witness at Fortyfivedownstairs are productions which demonstrate that our indie women directors can be as ambitious, imaginative, intelligent, out-there theatrical and aesthetically tough as any man.

As soon as you write it down, it looks ridiculous and patronising. And, given that last week I saw Lee Lewis’ Twelfth Night at the Arts Centre, and next year am looking forward to a Malthouse season curated by Marion Potts, it even sounds redundant. The problem is that if you don’t write it down, this fact gets too easily erased. Anyone mumbling that women have a specifically feminine aesthetic that forbids them from the main stages, or that there aren’t many woman directors around, or that only exceptional women have what it takes to fill a stage, or any of the other weasel reasons which add up to women, in defiance of demographics, being a “minority” in the decision-making arts, should get out and see these shows.

In the directorial hands of Nadja Kostich, Mari Lourey’s play Bare Witness becomes an outstanding piece of physical theatre: a punishing, sensually immersive investigation of trauma that never forgets to be intelligent. The story tracks the career of a photojournalist, Dany Hall, from her induction as a naive rooky during the Balkans war of the early 1990s to the desert wars of the present day. There’s an irresistible romance, even among journalists, around war reporting, and the subject matter is an ethical and aesthetic minefield. Bare Witness, to its considerable credit, avoids almost all the traps, from the first deadly sin of theatre – earnestness – to the Hollywood-style romanticising of journalists to the thoughtless exploitation of atrocity.

It’s a seamless marriage of its various parts, which add up to an overwhelming work of theatre. Kostich has a first-class technical set-up: Marg Howell’s bare but sensual stage design, seemingly made of crumpled paper; a broodingly punishing electronic and percussive score played live by Jethro Woodward; Emma Valente’s ad hoc lighting, created on stage by the actors and Valente herself, with fluorescent strips, flash-lights and swinging lamps lifting a claustrophobic darkness; and Michael Carmody’s fluidly abstract video, which combines footage of wolves (a ruling image of the press pack, who are both hunters and hunted), projected numbers or place names, or dissolving animations that recall the decaying charcoals of William Kentridge.

Against this richly suggestive theatrical field, the bodies of the five performers – Isaac Drandic, Daniela Farinacci, Adam McConvell, Todd MacDonald and Maria Theodorakis – play and transform. This is among the most exciting physical theatre I’ve seen – inventive and exhilarating, demonstrating how the precision of actors’ bodies is quite different from the miraculous accuracy of dance: more vernacular, perhaps, in its comparative coarseness, but when as passionately and skilfully performed as here, every bit as compelling.

As Bare Witness argues, war reporting is very like an addiction, and perhaps stems from the same kinds of emotional poverties and alienations as drug addiction does. And it can be just as fatal. Meanwhile, are journalists self-interested predators, or idealistic seekers of the truth, or adrenaline junkies? What difference does getting the news out actually make, in feeding the ravenous maw of a media machine hungry for the next image of atrocity and human suffering? In an image-saturated, media-manipulated world, how truthful can a photograph actually be? And what is the personal cost of a restless fascination with violence?

These questions are, for the most part, lightly raised, and the show evades moralising and sentimentalising its subject matter. In questioning the media, it also keeps in play the equally knotty question of artistic exploitation, which is no less distasteful. I found that its emotional impact registered just as the lights went down at the end, not during the course of the show. Its pace gives no time for reflection or thought, which, given its subject matter, seems wholly appropriate. Kostich’s production is perhaps most exciting in its unapologetic seriousness: it’s a relief to see a work that so directly, without naivety or cynicism or face-saving irony, addresses the complexities of real world calamity.

I thought the show around 20 minutes too long – there was a narrative detour around East Timor that edged the text into an earnestness and expositional looseness that it otherwise avoids. And work of this unrelenting intensity is difficult to sustain for more than around 90 minutes, without its effects becoming simply numbing. Even so, this is ambitious, smart, beautifully realised theatre. And quite unlike anything else that is on in Melbourne.

Image: Images of Nadja Kostich’s Bare Witness. Photo: Marg Howell. .

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