Director and Choreographer: Rhiannon Faith
On a blank white stage, a council worker despondently shuffles a heap of black stuff into a bucket. There’s a lifeguard’s chair, a board with an orange emergency telephone and an orange flotation device, and several more heaps of black stuff. One by one, five other characters come on stage. There are crashing wave noises. This is the seaside, but not the fun-in-the-sand and ice cream seaside; this is the coast where asylum seekers get dumped and refugees make landfall after nightmarish sea crossings. This is DROWNTOWN.
Rhiannon Faith makes explicitly socially conscious performance pieces with her own company. She employs speech and dance to bring a light to a political dilemma, and her fiercely committed dancer/actors deliver with passion. In this piece, she and her company explore marginalised people, people suffering from the effects of decisions they have little power to affect. They use words and movement to show desperation, and the movement is way more persuasive and engaging than the words, which is not unusual for choreographers who also write dialogue. Some of the most powerful speech acts are the ones that use repetition. A person who believes they are not visible to society is comforted by a friend, who says “I see you” and repeats and repeats and repeats the words until they become more sinister than comforting.
The use of repeated movements – writhing, falling, arched backs – is a trope that marks the choreography, and the movements are frequently repeated until they are drained of meaning, until they begin to mean something else. When used to illustrate the plight of the powerless, and the impact of constant economic and political assaults on their sense of self, it is a supremely effective device. There is a seventh character, Pearl, who is exclusively a voice on the emergency phone. She articulates isolation and confusion better than the performers on stage, and her distance and powerlessness to interact are successfully represented by this device. Pearl is well voiced by Jodie Fink.
When the dancers dance alone, they manifest their character’s distress. When all six dance as an ensemble, that distress is amplified, made general. There are also some duets that are lyrical, tender, healing. They come less frequently than the dancing that embodies distress, but the context renders them particularly affecting. The excellent sound design of John Victor uses beautiful string arrangements to underscore the tender moments.
The company of six dancers (Dominic Coffey, Sam Ford, Shelley Eva Haden, Donald Hutera, Finetta Oliver-Mikolajska, and Marla King) are credited as co-devisors of the piece, and there is a strong sense of performers who have made significant personal commitment to their performance. The cast list credits Joy Griffiths as ‘Company Psychotherapist’, which is an unusual thing to see in programme notes.
The dance strikes home hard to make emotional connection with the theme of marginalisation. The words work best as pure sound – screams, repetition, wordless emotional vocalisations – and less well as analysis, but connections with a group of marginalised, ignored, invisible people are powerfully established by the battery of performance elements. Rich, compelling, intriguing, and frequently beautiful, this is a piece that needs to be experienced.
Reviewed on 10 November 2022