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Cree-Canadian artist Cliff Cardinal's one-man show is tough but rewarding viewing
As one trans-Pacific partnership is dissolved at the stroke of a presidential pen, another – an artistic and cultural one – seems to be crystalising.
Sydney Festival artistic director Wesley Enoch appears keen to pivot away from Europe and toward the Pacific rim. His first program, featuring several shows from Canada and dance from Indonesia, could be a pointer to things to come.
It strikes me as a good thing. For starters, increased trans-Pacific traffic would give the Sydney Festival a unique flavour, distinct from its sister events in Adelaide and Perth. And given that Enoch is a champion of indigenous arts, it could also facilitate the sharing of ideas, expertise and experiences by First Nations artists.
In that respect, Cree-Canadian artist Cliff Cardinal’s Huff (produced by Native Earth Performing Arts) blazes a trail.
A multi-character monologue, Huff begins with a powerful, even distressing image of a young man with his head in a plastic bag. Insulation tape binds his hands behind his back and makes good the seal at his neck. He’s able to talk to us, nonetheless. This is his own doing, he explains. He has maybe three minutes before hypoxemia puts him into a coma. Another couple of minutes and he’ll be dead.
Yet he seems pretty upbeat about it. “This is a suicide attempt,” he jokes through misting plastic. “I say attempt, but it’s looking pretty good!”
Mercifully, the bag is removed, torn off with help from a surprised member of the audience. Once he has stopped gasping for oxygen, the young man introduces himself as Wind, middle brother of three siblings living on a reservation.
He gathers his breath and tells us his story, one that begins with the meeting of Wind’s mother and father, brings us into the present, and spirals off into the realms of a mischievous, sometimes malevolent spirit, The Trickster.
Breath and suffocation is a central and perturbing image in Huff, which takes its name from Wind’s preferred method of getting fucked-up: inhaling petrol fumes. The high is a violent one, says Wind. “Gas tastes like metal, but also like being scared – like someone screaming in your face.”
At other times, the brothers choke each other to the point of unconsciousness, again for euphoria and a momentary sense of release. It’s like playing knock-and-run at Death’s door.
The desire for escape is overwhelming. There is, after all, not much worth sticking around for. The boys’ mother is dead, a suicide in the woods. Dad is an alcoholic philanderer, and violent with it. Scarier still is Wind’s elder brother Charles, a sullen, brain-damaged sexual predator.
Petrol fumes. Lysol vapour. The seamy funk of Charles’ porn stash. The reeking juices of a talking skunk. The tang of canned tomatoes. The air around here literally (as well as metaphorically) stinks. No wonder Wind decides not to breathe it sometimes.
A nimble, highly personable performer, Cardinal plays upwards of 20 characters – human, animal, mythical – in Huff. He sketches them lightly but completely and snaps from one to another in an instant.
Guided by director Karin Randoja, Cardinal appears to hold nothing back. This is tough to witness. One scene in particular could easily warrant a trigger warning. Elsewhere he makes you fear for his safety.
And yet Huff is a weirdly buoyant experience, too, made so by the vividness of the storytelling and the event’s anything-could-happen immediacy. Those in the front row will feel it in particular.