For those local theatre-philes well versed in Melbourne’s thriving independent scene, there’re a few signature styles that are likely to be familiar.
There’s the camp, subversive kitsch of Sisters Grimm, the B-Movie fever-dream cabaret of Retro Futurismus, the neo-gothic queer opulence of Little Ones, and the rich visual chutzpah of Fraught Outfit. And then there’s The Rabble, whose canon of feminist theatre has charted a singularly uncompromising path. Most often tackling well-known narratives, their productions loosen these stories from their traditional moorings and dissect them in radical, often violent ways.
Founded by co-directors Kate Davis and Emma Valente, The Rabble has established a theatrical identity that somehow leeches a subtle beauty from bloodied and brutalised experiences. It’s theatre of the most chimeric sort; at once yearning and wrenching, spectacular and stark.
But for their latest outing, Davis and Valente have veered from this expected path, to traverse a different emotional and thematic terrain, alongside some unexpected collaborators. Lone is a collection of 30-minute, one-on-one experiences, created by a group of eight to 11-year-olds. True to its title, audience members engage with the performance individually, each entering a bespoke chamber. Inside, a single child offers a unique vignette, toying with the inscrutable distance between the liberation of being alone and the traumatic isolation of loneliness.
Entering single file into the dark auditorium at Arts House, 11 small, shed-like structures, each uniformly white, appear out of the gloaming, like some ghostly frontier settlement. What awaits within these structures is totally unknown, but each audience member receives an entirely different experience, devised and delivered by members of Melbourne-based youth theatre group St Martins. However, the microcosms within these tiny houses are far from child’s play. Psychologically and symbolically taut, Lone tackles grown-up ideas in surprisingly complex ways.
Publicity for Lone describes it as “delicate” – not an adjective readily associated with work by The Rabble. But in fact, there are all the hallmarks of Davis and Valente’s fierce social commentary within the DNA of this performance art experiment. While the surface gestures may be relatively restrained, it still thrums with Valente and Davis’ interest in deconstructing the status quo. The dynamic of the performance turns typical generational roles on their heads; the child as the person of authority, the most informed person in a space that is entirely alien and unnavigable for the adult. There are also questions about the tension between the subjective and objective, and the nature of surveillance, safety and protection.
And a liberal amount of play too, for both the performers and the audience. Entering a theatre to find a village of chalky huts summons the immediate thrill of the unexpected. Discovering a surreal, whimsical world and its one young inhabitant sparks the neurons as the intangibility of symbolism and subtext mingle with the childhood equivalents of make-believe and fantasy. There’s a giddiness to this mode of theatre; the buzz of knowing a secret, of having lived something unrepeatable. And the curiosity of what other mysteries are unfolding just metres away.
There is, however, one innate quality of The Rabble’s theatre that working with children could potentially askew: its political drive. In previous productions, like the physically ruthless Joan, in which the persecution of Joan of Arc riffed on the commodifying of the female body, or Frankenstein, a repurposing of Mary Shelley’s monstrous masterpiece as an interrogation of gender norms and motherhood, The Rabble have always drawn polemic parallels thick and heavy. However, a practice that draws its substance from a collaborative effort also finds its political voice from its creators. So what, if any, political commentary could come from a cast as young as Lone’s?
Sitting in these miniature theatres, it becomes clear that the very architecture of the show reveals its politics. The mere fact that an adult is sharing an experience with a child they don’t know, in a scenario where the younger occupant is able to offer something that can’t be dismissed, is an inherent statement about the status of children in our society and the riches, too often overlooked, that young minds can produce.