Review: small metal objects

Theatre

24.03.2016

Review: small metal objects

Adam Goodall, Sherilee Kahui and Jane Yonge discuss Back to Back Theatre's immersive play as it was performed in a public space on Wellington's waterfront.

Australian theatre company Back to Back Theatre’s small metal objects has been touring busy public spaces around the world since 2005. Steve and Gary (Simon Laherty and Sonia Teuben, the latter playing a very convincing man) are two men considered to have intellectual disabilities. Gary’s about to go into hospital for a knee operation; Steve is plummeting into an existential crisis. Gary wants to help, but then he gets a call from Allan (Jim Russell), a brash property lawyer who wants to get his hands on $3,000 worth of cocaine for a legal awards ceremony he’s attending later that night with his HR psychologist friend Caroline (Genevieve Morris). The hitch? Steve’s existential crisis has taken hold, and neither he nor Gary are leaving the area until Steve’s worked his way through his own thoughts.

We see small metal objects on a Friday afternoon, just after everyone’s knocked off from work (we being Adam Goodall, Pantograph Punch Theatre Editor - Wellington; Sherilee Kahui, producer of Receiver and director of the original Te Whaea season of Wake Up Tomorrow; and Jane Yonge, director of Page Turners and Heteroperformative). The Wednesday afternoon performance had been rained off. The Friday afternoon performance was much nicer.

In its NZ Festival season, small metal objects takes place on the waterfront near TSB Bank Arena, wedged between the Dockside Bar and the Shed 6 dock. We’re all sitting on a set of bleachers facing the harbour; each seat has its own set of headphones that both music and dialogue are piped through. The show takes place in the public space in front of us, passers-by caught in and around the action as they walk or cycle or skateboard along the waterfront.

Adam Goodall

The biggest hurdle that this season faced was that it wasn’t staged in a space that’s busy enough to give you the real feeling of picking people out inside a massive crowd. When the concept of the show rides on paying attention to people in a crowd and that’s where some of its thematic interest lies - the ways we look at people and come to snap judgments immediately and the need to look closer - it’s very anti-climactic.

Sherilee Kahui

And it almost makes a farce of that thing? Because you know what they’re trying to do with it but then it’s so...set-up. Created? Crafted?

Jane Yonge

Artificial?

Sherilee

There we go. Especially when you can see pedestrians on the side of the audience block trying to figure out, “Should I go? Should I not go?” And then there’s Dockside, so those people are there for that whole time as well, not really coming and going.

Jane

After the performance we talked about people making the choice to go around the seating block or in front of the audience.

Sherilee

Which does tie in with the psychology point. But it’s not that interesting? The audience bank is very obvious.

Adam

The psychological question that comes out of letting people choose isn’t as interesting as forcing people to walk through the action. And that sounds like I’m for taking agency away from people and imposing participation on them, but it feels like that’s what the play’s interested in anyway, because that’s the reality of being in a crowd.

Sherilee

It also becomes an opposition to Steve’s choice to opt out and have that break.

Jane

I did enjoy the Bluebridge Ferry coming in at the beginning and I enjoyed hearing Gary and Steve’s voices at the beginning and not knowing where they were coming from. I was looking and looking and looking at other people and quite blatantly staring at members of the public. Members of the public, especially the people sitting at Dockside, looked uncomfortable because we were all hunting for the thing that we were hearing. At first I found it really disorienting, “Where are these voices coming from.”

I liked hearing their voices and not knowing what the speakers looked like. So you’re hearing these voices and suddenly they’re familiar, they’re with you, they’re part of you, they’re warm with you, but you don’t know who they are or where they’re coming from. Then suddenly they’re there and they’re not rushing, they’re just taking their time and you’re with them. They felt like new friends.

Jane

I was more drawn to Gary and Steve’s characters. It felt like they weren’t performing for me in that public space where people around them were, and had to be, themselves. They’re these friends that have this really intense, beautiful conversation at the beginning, and they walk towards us, and members of the public just aren’t seeing them. So they were really invisible and there was something really nice about being able to hear what they were saying but no-one else could, no-one else knew what the story was. None of the public knew. No-one was eavesdropping. But as soon as Allan and Caroline came in, they were very performative.

Sherilee

It was obvious a thing is happening.

Adam

They just impose themselves on the space, because their story is so high-stakes. For them.

Jane

They’re the pressure on Gary and Steve, and then all of the things happen in the story from there. For me, though the most magical part was still at the beginning with the conversation. I could’ve listened to that the whole time. And watched the public getting really confused about what we were looking at and what we were listening to. That’s why I missed the thing about the drugs. I kept zoning because I just wanted to hear more from Gary and Steve.

“Believe” is a tricky word but, for me, there’s a lot of truth in the relationship between Gary and Steve; the support that they have for each other, as friends. Whereas I didn’t believe the relationship Allan brought in as much.

Adam

We were talking before about how Allan and Caroline were a lot more performative. There’s an aggressive condescension to the way that they talk to each other and to Gary and Steve. Caroline barrels in and she’s angry, but it’s a real condescending anger, and the moment she’s with Steve, it’s like talking to a child. I don’t know if it’s a really interesting play on the ideas around making snap judgments about people and breezing through crowds without any regard to the people around you, but there’s an arrogance and that was the thing that I found interesting about them.

Sherilee

It’s quite obvious, though.

Jane

I was expecting more around the set-up of the form itself: this thing of performers in a public space. More interaction, maybe; more playing with audience and playing with the public.

Sherilee

But again, though, I wonder if that happens in a different space. Because there were token moments of that: “Are you Gary? Are you Gary?” 

Adam

There’s that really beautiful bit towards the end where Steve and Gary go towards Dockside and stop outside, Steve doesn’t want to go in, so they just walk around to that little gap between Crab Shack and Dockside, and they stop to talk to that couple. We don’t hear it, we just see the reactions, and I found that nice. I liked the easiness of that. 

Sherilee

The talking was really nice to watch, but it felt like they were following a trajectory - now you walk here, now you walk here. It seemed very directed. And jarring. Like, it was nice when Gary was sitting on that seat in Dockside’s outside bar. That made sense because it was just working with what was there. But then he just gets up and stands. What? Why?

It makes sense for Steve to just be standing wherever, though, because he’s just having a moment.

Adam

His stillness would feel much more effective as a contrast, again, if there was traffic, because that’s the person standing in the middle of everyone. 

Jane

I love that thing, though, of “I’m just having a moment”.

Sherilee

It’s beautiful. 

Jane

So many times I’ve wanted to do that, and I wish I had. And here is, like, some courage to do that. “I’m just having a moment, I just need to stay here right now.” 

Adam

It’s such a simple and relatable obstacle for a person that oftentimes - 99% of the time - it feels like theatre will avoid because it feels too ‘simple’.

Jane

But it’s not really simple at all. There’s this image of Steve just standing there with people walking past him and not looking at him. This guy’s having an existential crisis, but they don’t even realise that he’s the performer or part of the performance. But we’re all in the know.

I really liked watching people walking past and pretending that the audience weren’t there. I could imagine if you walked past you would feel very watched; people walking past, especially walking quite close to the seating block, instantly had very good posture, a nice gait.

Sherilee

There were also quite a lot of young women who looked really really uncomfortable. That ‘don’t look at me don’t look at me’ kind of thing. 

Adam

There’s an interesting contrast there with Steve and Gary because they are so relaxed within the space and very natural in the moment that when you see something like that, you become very aware of your own unnaturalness as an audience member. As a pedestrian, the moment you walk past an audience block, you’re like “I shouldn’t be here” and then react accordingly. Or “they shouldn’t be here” and then react accordingly.

Again, this is a thing that would be far more effective is if it had a greater crowd.

Adam

I just want to take a brief tangent to talk about how good that space is physically. If it had the foot traffic it would have been great because there’s all this dock gear and these massive buildings. It’s like everyone is dwarfed by the harbour; it’s this very expansive, large environment that makes everything that happens in front of us quite small. There’s something interesting to me in that it puts a kind of perspective on every single individual, because you notice them within the grander context of city, country. 

Sherilee

The macrocosm, yeah. I agree, but then Dockside was also really imposing for me, in my stage picture. It took up a lot of space. When you’re looking at the actors, if you’re seeing the sea behind, that’s a blue colour, and then, in my mind, the bar and all the people are a black/grey/brown colour and that takes up way more space. 

Jane

I totally get your point that there is potential for the architecture of the space to be imposing: ‘what are we but one tiny grain of sand in how many thousand bazillions of people.’ For me, though, it is about the people, so without the people the architecture’s nice but...

I really appreciated people walking past and not seeing the seating block and then seeing the seating block and being caught out. I know that if I was at the train station, like at Flinders, catching the train, I would just be going to catch a train and walking past, barely registering it - “What’s that? Okay”. That purpose. People going places, and Steve in the middle of this having a meltdown.

Adam

And there’s not that in that area because what have you got? A couple of bars. Ferg’s Kayaks.

Jane

It’s people having a stroll on a Friday night or--

Sherilee

Going to after-work drinks.

Adam

It creates a different energy. I don’t necessarily feel like it’s ‘grain of sand’ stuff; it’s more that every single individual’s existence within this gigantic framework and architecture is given some kind of meaning, and Steve’s stillness contrasts a lot more when there’s a crowd and then everything beyond that crowd is still.

We keep talking around the hypothetical of Flinders Street Station, where the original season took place. Flinders is a big space, so that framework still exists, but it wouldn’t have been less immense.

Sherilee

It’s kind of hard to talk about an experience in terms of what it wasn’t, as well. I think the difference here is that because it’s a touring work, we already know the what ifs because they’ve happened! They’ve been done. The instinct then is that the other version is more directly connected to the purpose and the intention of the work, whereas transposing it here didn’t really work.

Jane

The question is where can you play in that space? Because it sort of felt like the action took place in that L shape just right in front of the stage and then by the kayaks. But how else can the space be used? Where can people go?

I really liked the sound design. Did you guys?

Adam

There were moments where it was great and there were moments where I felt it over-telegraphed everything. The moment before Allan’s phone call comes through, there’s this really ominous scale that really hammered home that something bad was going to happen. And I didn’t need that! It would have been much nicer if it had eased up on that.

Sherilee

Silence, even.

Adam

Yeah. It just telegraphed that Allan’s the bad guy. Something bad is going to happen and then Allan calls and you know he is the bad thing that’s going to happen. I would have liked to have come to that decision naturally, as Gary and Steve come to it. Because there’s naturally something off about a guy calling up and asking for $3,000 worth of stuff and you don’t know him and he says he knows your buddy Darren.

Sherilee

“Do we know a Darren?...Yup, yup, we do.” Such a good moment.

Adam

When Allan and Caroline were having a really intense conversation, I took off one of my headphone ears and Sweet Home Alabama was playing on the Dockside speakers. It was this discordant moment that made me wish the show had opened itself up to the soundscape of the environment more. As it is, that’s one half of the experience of that space just lopped off. It took a lot of the suspense out of my hands, and it was also less interesting.

Sherilee

The climax is real extreme.

Adam

It’s Goodfellas

Jane

It’s cringe in a really different way. It feels awkward: “Alright, Caroline, what’s the worst thing you could say?”

Adam

But Steve’s reaction, which is nothing, is great. And I like how his energy doesn’t change, really. He just seems in himself. 

Jane

I wonder - shoulda/coulda/woulda - if Caroline’s dialogue could have been played less violent. Because the line itself is very violent 

Adam

It could have kept that condescension. Because she engages with everyone like they’re children and Allan engages with everyone like they’re children. Just keeping that for that bit instead of shifting gears. 

Sherilee

Do they engage with everyone like they’re children? Do they engage with each other like they’re children? 

Adam

Definitely feel like Caroline does with Allan.

Sherilee

She’s a higher status than him. She’s a fancy psychologist. 

Jane

I really like when Caroline says to Gary, “I’m going to speak to your friend. Do you think he’d let me speak to him?” And Gary’s like, “Can I have your card?” Then he takes the card and goes over and gives it to Steve. As though you have to prove first that you are who you say you are through a card! I quite like the high-status person having to show their papers, essentially. 

Sherilee

I wonder then, if the comment there - because we obviously haven’t talked about their disabilities at all yet - is that something about people with disabilities and their communities is that that status thing doesn’t seem to be present in the same way. It kind of doesn’t matter who the fuck you are. I’m a person and you’re a person, whatever. 

Jane

Maybe that was the thing that made me not want to really care about the story so much, because Gary and Steve, who I was connected to, especially Steve, didn’t care about the drugs and that pressure so much. Maybe the intention was the jarring of that: here are these high-profile people with these needs and these pressures in their life - 

Adam

Going to the 2015 National Legal Awards!

Jane

- and next to them just the awareness that that’s arbitrary, and the clash of those things.

Sherilee

Yeah, the idea that your status means nothing here.

Jane

But that is established so quickly, and then it keeps getting pushed and pushed and pushed, and of course Steve and Gary aren’t going to move from that.

Adam

Allan and Caroline don’t move from that either, and that’s where I think the condescension comes in, because they’re these high-status people and they want Gary and Steve to to respect that status because they think they’re low status. They think they can get one over on Gary and Steve, and it feels like The Story is these two people who regard their power, status and relationships totally differently just slamming into Gary and Steve for 40 minutes.

Jane

The action of trying to get Steve to move - first Allan and then Caroline - is half of the show. And we know he’s not going to move! He’s not going to move. Anything you two can offer him is not going to make him move, and it’s never going to be good enough. And I can tell you that he’s not going to move and you two are going to leave pissed.

Adam

Which I guess comes to the point of how the story doesn’t-- 

Sherilee

--matter. 

Adam

Yeah. It’s not really the engaging part.

Sherilee

I think, though, in a way, Steve’s resistance is his way of getting somewhere in his crisis. 

Jane

Overall, I enjoyed the show. I’m really glad I went. It was a different experience, and one that I haven’t ever had before. I would like to see it again, maybe in a different time, a different place, and with a different focus.

Sherilee

The time did go really fast, which is always a good sign. 

Adam

I would watch show after show of Gary and Steve. I just like it more for what it’s trying to do rather than for what it was on that night. And, again, I’d be keen to see it at a time where the space and everything else felt more like it was what they were hoping for.

Sherilee

Closer to the intention. Yeah.


small metal objects ran 
on the waterfront outside the TSB Bank Arena
from Wednesday 16 - Saturday 19 March
For more information, go here.
 
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