There’s been a lot of talk in our society about the scourge of domestic violence, from politicians, the media and high-profile survivors like Rosie Batty. Talk is good, but sometimes we have greater impact when we go beyond words. Theatre company Influx have devised a movement piece, Animal, that has maximum impact without a word spoken. There is text, projected in massive font across the back wall of the theatre, but it is deliberately opaque and suggestive. The real means of expression are the bodies of the two extraordinary performers, Kate Sherman (Ruby’s Wish) and Nicci Wilks (Shit).
They start perched atop two of the large cubed industrial containers that make up the set, bare breasted and waiting. The animal of the title is already suggested in the coiled tension of their postures, and when they descend to the playing space they come ready for violence and retribution.
The space is dressed with a table and a few brown vinyl chairs, redolent of a ’70s suburban kitchen. This is important because it domesticates the setting and cuts against the show’s aesthetic tendency towards Australian Gothic; it’s a horror show, but one that takes place in the everyday. The girls seem to make a pact with each other, to subject themselves to the most aggressive brutality their bodies will bear, alternating as victim and perpetrator. As a representation of the shredding destruction of domestic abuse, it is disturbing in the extreme.
Some sections are more bewildering: one routine with a glass of water sliding off a table is particularly obtuse; filmed footage of the girls lying in the snow feels superfluous. But most sections, including a brutal and protracted round of punching, are visceral and necessary. The choreography (by the performers and director Susie Dee) is relentless but perfectly judged. The girls mirror each other, move in unison, or circle each other around the space like sparring boxers, and the effect is consistently compelling.
Dee is a dynamic director of actors’ bodies and, although often seen collaborating with the brilliant writing of Patricia Cornelius, is entirely comfortable with the brute physicality of these performers. She knows exactly how far to push a sequence or movement, and also how to elicit great performances from her actors. The nightmarish expectation of trauma is present in every expression, and the audience only need to look into the performers’ eyes to see the damage wrought on their psyches.
Kelly Ryall’s sound design is wonderfully sinister, booming and rumbling over us like machines of war. Matched to the stark set, the effect is oppressive and suffocating. All of which makes the show sound unbearably grim and depressing. Strangely though, the effect of watching two women preparing for a world of violence by manifesting and enacting its results is rather cathartic. The final moment in particular is one of endurance, if not quite triumphalism. It employs the image of the animal again, but this time evoking the nobility and grace of the stag.
That these two performers have given every inch of themselves to this piece is beyond question. The dramaturgy from Angus Cerini, who also supplies the text, is equally thoughtful. With Dee’s muscular direction and a sound design as ominous as the subject matter, this is one attempt to confront the plague of domestic violence we’ll likely be talking about long into the new year.