Theatre: Windmill & Big h’Art’s ‘Nyuntu Ngali’ in review

I’ve always felt that politics and theatre have fantastic potential to create dynamic and enlightening human experiences together. Striking the right balance when designing a production with a multimedia approach and multiple agendas is fraught with danger though, as Windmill‘s latest production, Nyuntu Ngali reminded me last night.

Written and directed by Scott Rankin of Big h’Art, the play presents itself as a post-apocalyptic love story. The central struggle of the two young leads to survive as fugitives in the Pitjantjatjara desert is frequently disturbed by the piece’s polemic, didactic political statements. While Roam and Eve’s choreographed movement is expressive in an abstract way, their characters’ underdeveloped lives and personalities make empathising with them difficult. This leaves the gate open for the soap-box politics to resound, despite the best efforts of the multi-disciplinary ensemble.

Driven from her community for breaking blood-related laws of union, Eve (Anne Golding) begins her journey as a teenager in the late stages of pregnancy. On the run with Roam (Derek Lynch), the two are confronted by a mortifying prospect: to abandon their child to save themselves, or to turn their backs on their community forever and face the future as three.

Nyuntu Ngali - Roam & Eve entangled in a lovers knot (photo by missometimes)
Nyuntu Ngali - Roam & Eve entangled in a lovers' knot (photo by missometimes)

From her initial impulse to abandon her child, Eve’s character proves difficult to like. She struggles from adolescence into motherhood, while Roam struggles to develop as provider for his new family. Both neglected their elders’ teaching, and the cautionary note here is clear. Their scenario stands as a warning to all of us to reconsider the knowledge that is the most valuable to us. Rankin’s insight into the value of traditional practise, the way of the hunter-gatherer versus that of a society ‘techno mad’ is pertinent, and well-expressed. Employing a gentle combination of human movement and projected video, traditional Pitjantjatjara skills were depicted as fragile, distant memories. Unfortunatley Rankin’s messages were not always expressed with such a sensitive, soft-handed approach.

Using the familiar technique of taking the audience to the future to reflect on the present, Nyuntu Ngali’s setting is a post climate-change world, where the cities are barren and the well-springs of life are now found in the waterholes of the desert country. To the story’s detriment, Rankin’s agenda to criticise and agitate smothers the lovers’ tale progressively as the play unfolds. The powerfully portrayed narrator’s (Trevor Jamieson) voice becomes the dominant one, mocking the habits of youth enveloped in popular culture. The delusional fantasies expressed in the lyrics and sentiments of commercial music are satirised by the whole cast in a jarring musical-dance montage, while our petro-philia- from the love of the cars to derivative petro-chemical products is detailed explicitly by Jamieson on several occasions. A sequence where actors shadow dance to an R’n’B track labours its point, and was almost as painful and heavy-handed as the young leads’ decision to call their child ‘Petrol Head’.

From the naming of their child, (and the frequent repetition of it) the lovers are reduced to becoming props for Rankin’s political projection. While I personally agree with the director’s central argument, that the ‘just do it’ culture of oil-worship is steering us towards apocalypse, the means in which the message is delivered hampers its effect. The story’s tone is inescapably bleak, and such a course threatens to paralyse its already leftward-leaning middle-class, theatre-going audiences and inspire little action.

Nyuntu Ngali - The full set in action (photo by misssometimes)
Nyuntu Ngali - The full set in action (photo by misssometimes)

Accompanying the lovers verbal and physical narrative were several multimedia elements. While the performed music of Beth Sometimes frequently sapped energy from the performances with its slow tempo and laconic style, the projected live sand-painting of an uncredited indigenous performer was consistently beautiful. Attention was never actively drawn to this element though, while neighbouring video art, mostly unremarkable, was projected on a much grander scale. Cryptic unfolding hinged boxes provided the actors with versatile, collapsible and at times symbolic props, but also created another disparate element in an already dysfunctional world.

While the production design was warm and gentle in general, this rubbed firmly up against the prevailing themes, actions and tone of the central story. I wanted to empathise with Eve and Roam but struggled to connect with the undernourished characters, and was denied any skerrick of hope for humanity at the play’s end. Perhaps ramping up the experience’s intensity to provide the dynamic thrust of a purgative, cathartic experience would have resolved this story more effectively? Despite its good intentions and performances, Nyuntu Ngali left me out in the cold.

Dan Monceaux

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Theatre: Hitting the road with Slingsby’s ‘Wolf’

Emma Sterling and I have spent the past several weeks in an intense collaborative bubble, producing and performing (essentially VJing) video content for an innovative new theatrical performance for children. Directed by Andy Packer and performed by Ellen Steele, ‘Wolf’ is an original story by Andy Packer (written by Finegan Kruckemeyer) and developed by a collaborative team of specialists spanning many artistic disciplines. Full team credits are available at the Slingsby website. ‘Wolf’ explores the theme of fear and anxiety and their roles in our lives and Western folk story traditions. The performance is part physical theatre, part video diary and part new media performance, as the lone character Ruby slips into a dreamscape in which she is pursued and confronted by her fears and insecurities.

I’m writing this blog entry from just south of Tailem Bend, an early whistle-stop on the road to Mount Gambier, the place of the play’s original conception last year, and soon to be the place of its public premiere. As latecomers to the project, we had the task of devising the delivery method for three different screens of video content, and producing video sequences for several scenes, in a style harmonious to existing footage created by Sophie Hyde of Closer Productions. Requiring a combination of wrapping double-screen images, and rolling single screen content, the imagery is at times immersive and environmental, at others direct broadcasts from Ruby’s video diary and in more surreal moments, manifestations of pure imagination. The video system prototype before we became involved required three networked computers, syncronised, each driving a single projector.

Our first challenge was to devise a neater technical solution that would also provide us with the performance flexibility we need to allow us to respond spontaneously with video, augmenting the performer’s movement and the story’s progress. Since we were already committed users of Arkaos’ and Numark’s NuVJ package, we roadtested and ran with Arkaos’ GrandVJ for the ultimate solution. Using this concise and powerful program, we are now able to run all three screens from a single Acer Aspire 6930G laptop, which we bought with the spoils of the commission. The key factors in running the system smoothly are many, with tech specs an important part of the picture. The Vista laptop we run has a 1 Gb dedicated video card, 4Gb of RAM and a dual core 2.4 GHz processor. Feeding the software files with the best compression codecs and ratios is critical. For GrandVJ, I’ve followed the recommended workflow and use H264 for HDV dual-screen clips, and Quicktime PhotoJPEG for SD clips. Starting the compression at 80%, I wind it back on some of the longer HDV clips when they start to stagger on playback.


Theatre: Slingsby’s WOLF Premieres May 6 (TVC)

Another early task we were set was to deliver a TVC for broadcast in regional South Australia, advertising the show and its imminent tour. For this we re-edited the existing prologue, shot by Sophie Hyde, and inserted an animated sequence created by Luku. We’ve also distributed the TVC via TubeMogul, a terrific tool for re-distributing online video across multiple portal sites.

So we’re passing twisted gumtrees, expansive pastures and the occasional road-train, racing towards the official premiere on May 6th. After three showings with test audiences last week at the Odeon Theatre in Norwood. After Mount Gambier, we hit a string of country towns across SA, including Kadina, Keith, Bordertown, Port Augusta, Whyalla, Port Pirie, Roxby Downs, Ceduna and Port Lincoln. As always, Em and I are packing multiple cameras so we’ll be documenting the trip as well as the show as both unfold.

Dan Monceaux

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