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The directors of Belarus Free Theatre collaborate with local artists for this Melbourne Festival show at Malthouse
For the longest time, theatre-making has been dominated by a process in which a playwright crafts a story and then a director, cast and design team bring that story to the stage. But in recent years this hierarchical structure has been questioned with more and more frequency, and different forms of collaboration have emerged to respond to different circumstances.
Is the traditional model the best way to respond to the most difficult social questions of Australia in 2018? Perhaps not. Perhaps, as the team behind Trustees have done, the best option is to bring together a group of leading performers and writers from different parts of the Australian community – in collaboration with Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezain, the directors of Belarus Free Theatre – and devise a piece of theatre as a group.
The collaborative approach allows for more perspectives to emerge than a single playwright might be able to conjure up, but it’s a difficult task to wrangle so many voices into a satisfying and cohesive whole. While Trustees is quite the ride and lands plenty of punches, it has too many disparate moments, tonal inconsistencies and dramaturgical bumps to have the impact that it might.
Things kick off with a group of five suited upper-middle class people holding a debate over arts funding. The proposition is simple: government funding for the arts does more harm than good. The debate is full of artifice and, unsurprisingly, not everything is as it seems. It turns out those debating are board members for a theatre company and they’ve got a plan to build a subterranean immersive theatre experience about colonisation that’s offensive on just about every level imaginable.
It’s a funny and provocative enough starting point, but there seem to be a few too many in-jokes for those following the arts funding situation around Australia in recent years. (We’re sorry to break it to the arts community, but the general population really doesn’t take that much notice.)
But then the boardroom starts to fracture (Romanie Harper’s set design has the audience seated around a single imposing table which opens up in various ways) and the actors onstage reveal their thoughts and feelings about a whole range of issues, mostly to do with racism in Australia, the ongoing effects of colonisation, and our country’s treatment of refugees.
There are undeniably strong and impactful monologues, which are all interpreted with extraordinary and distinctive physicality, and seem to have some degree of truth and an element of fiction. Daniel Schlusser shifts from a story about the cruel practice of cooking ortolans to a monologue about how his relationship with his children is affected by his father’s own trauma. Tammy Anderson invites us to look at her as she really is, as a Tasmanian Aboriginal woman who understands trauma, and a hugely successful artist. Natasha Herbert speaks of her reticence to be involved with the play at all, and admits significant flaws in her attitude to Australia’s great problems. Hazem Shammas talks about how he’s perceived in a narrow-minded and often bigoted industry (he’s had to pray to Allah more times in this job than he’s had to wipe his arse) in an understandably angry speech. And Niharika Senapati reflects on just how lucky she has been in comparison to some of the people who’ve fallen under the wheels of global inequality.
In the end, the show poses a single question to its audience: why don’t you care more? One of Melbourne Festival’s other long-running shows, Flight, also talks about refugees but lets its audience off the hook a little. It might have dramaturgical flaws, but you certainly couldn’t accuse the provocative, darkly funny and muscular Trustees of doing the same.