The Berkshire Review in Australia / Theater

The Sydney Festival: ‘Buried City’ By Raimondo Cortese at the Belvoir St Theatre

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Meyne Wyatt in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Meyne Wyatt in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Buried City
By Raimondo Cortese

Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney: 13 January 2012
continues until 5 February
A co-production with Urban Theatre Projects and Sydney Festival.

Russell Kiefel in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Russell Kiefel in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

Conceived & Directed by Alicia Talbot
Co-devisors & performers – Valerie Berry, Perry Keyes, Russell Kiefel, Effie Nkrumah, Hazem Shammas and Meyne Wyatt
Set & Costume Designer – Mirabelle Wouters
Singer-Songwriter – Perry Keyes
Sound Designer & Composer – Paul Prestipino
Lighting Design – Neil Simpson with Sean Bacon
Movement Director – Kathy Cogill
UTP Executive Producer – Michelle Kotevski
Production Manager – Sharna Galvin
Production Consultant – Neil Fisher
Stage Manager  – Frank Mainoo
Assistant Stage Manager – Rosealee Pearson.
Community Liaison – Annie Winter

At the Sydney Festival: see also Dance at the Sydney Festival – Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Damien Jalet’s ‘Babel’, Martin del Amo’s ‘Anatomy of an Afternoon’ and Gideon Obarzanek’s ‘Assembly’

The eponymous “beautiful view” from the top of Belvoir Street in Surry Hills, a former slum now half-gentrified and hipsterfied inner south neighborhood of Sydney, is blocked in with buildings, mostly nondescript boxy apartments. The odd half row of terrace houses or old workers’ cottages stands out. The real beauty, though, is all in the local fig trees, and Surry Hills has many old ones, if not screening the more misguided council flats, then overarching them and the street with their enormous canopies, which recall the rain-forest. Intuitively I always judge a neighborhood at first glance from its trees, ignoring the buildings and at first seeing only the street trees, window boxes, courtyard and park trees. Where there are no trees at all — all too frequently — I am instantly depressed. On the other hand I find I can tolerate some pretty depressing architecture if the old trees have been left around it.

The Belvoir St Theatre is undergoing renovations — there is a hole in the outside wall over the sidewalk (walking past which an hour so before a performance you can hear rehearsals floating out, or are they angry builders?) with a scaffold around it covered in green mesh and playbills. A sign claims that their fascia needs repair, but it works all a bit too well with this their current production. I suspect they punched a hole in the wall for added realism — perhaps a sort of Method for set design? Either way, the play’s set inside is a very realistic construction site: a climbable scaffold covers the back walls of the theatre, opening seamlessly onto the real scaffold outside which is used for as a backstage. The “wing” leading to the back stage is merely the hole in the wall opening out over the street. Loudspeakers play traffic noises inside the theater as the audience comes in to find their seats, continuing over the beginning of the play proper. Dust and detritus spread across the stage with beer and liquor bottles and milk crates, and there is a little tin site office behind the audience with a light on and a security guard inside. Besides that we are outdoors but there are no trees or vegetation to speak of. The only bit of nature is the real sunset pouring in from outside (the “curtain” rises at 8pm but it is summer — Sydney Festival time), coinciding with nightfall in the play; was that currowong singing bedtime outside for real or did it come from the speakers? The only other half way natural thing on the stage is a water tap, which becomes useful later on, like the fountain in a rustic village, the characters go to it to dunk their heads to sober up, fill water pipes for hashish, or just to fill bottles or kettles.

One gradually becomes aware of a person half-buried in shadow fiddling with a lighter in the back and another lying on the scaffold. The distance to the audience is very short indeed. We too are Sydneysiders, or at least visiting for more than the day, we see construction sites like this one all the time, whether offices or apartments going up in rezoned residential areas, new McMansions, extensions, or new bathrooms — Sydney is growing fast, not like Beijing or Singapore, but fast enough, in population and in indoor space — so we might just as well be sitting in the street as in a theatre, the only difference is that very few in the audience would hang around such a site for two hours. Perry (the actors use their own names in the play), a bored night watchman, opens with a song and he sings again later in the play a few times when the “conversation” peters out. Russell, an aging construction worker, sleeping on the scaffold, wakes up, one isn’t sure right away if he’s homeless or not — as it turns out he’s waiting for a friend to pick him up — but he’s not in a rush to leave either. None of the characters seem to be unemployed or in that bad a way, they are working-class, but their lives are messed up enough that they hang around this construction site all night. Nothing really happens in the play, nothing nasty, nothing obviously significant, there is no tragedy beyond the continuing vague problem in the air, but nothing is resolved either. The whole play is talking, not exactly conversation in the old fashioned sense, but the dialogue doesn’t go anywhere, it is not circular but rather disjointed; it is all banter or posturing or ranting, raving, complaining or swearing. Perry sings in a very raw style about high rise apartments, jumping, about Jack Mundey and the green bans — the older white men (here in the minority), Perry and Russell, are nostalgic in a way, but the young people are no more satisfied with society’s change, its “progress” since the days of old Sydney. They despise the developers and the politicians, constantly tearing down the old to build obtrusive large buildings, yet they can’t afford the rent on the apartments that they build.

Hazem Shammas in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Hazem Shammas in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

The play covers everything and nothing. Raimondo Cortese has written very honest and fluid dialogue as realistic as the set, distressingly so, and the actors deliver it naturally in their own way, the sense of a stream words and half responses without much thought behind. They are a marvelously diverse cast: Haz “the Palestinian,” Meynedog is a young aboriginal man, Effie is Afro-West Indian-Australian, Val is Vietnamese-Australian. Cortese plays on expectations of prejudice and stereotype but never falls into them, the characters are too unpredictable to be stereotypes. Haz walks on stage with an agro demeanor, car keys in one hand, bottle in the other, which is the worst crime this lot of characters commits in the play, bad enough, but as it turns out none are violent people or too depraved, not in the category of what you might read in the city news in the paper on any given day. But we don’t know that when Russell and Haz break out fighting. For a while it is very tense and ugly, with all the glass and steel bars lying around, but it just fizzles out comically. We don’t know a thing about the characters and we learn hardly anything because the dynamics of the conversation won’t let them reveal much of anything serious about themselves. There are enough hints dropped, vulnerabilities revealed by omission, and show-offy but random personal admissions, sometimes embarrassing but not very deep, to give the characterization a certain background depth, but these are not meant to be deep characters in the usual sense, which in an odd way makes them more believable for the purposes of this play.

Hazem Shammas and Valerie Berry in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Hazem Shammas and Valerie Berry in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

In such a play, about the city, asking, as the blurb says ‘who gets to decide the future of our city?’ there is a risk that the politics will be introduced in a clunky or didactic way. The audience, being mostly Sydneysiders, has an interest in that question, even a tendency to lean forward to participate. The “debate” however in the play never really amounts to much. Cortese manages to avoid clunky and didactic politics. The politics which come into it do come in awkwardly, rather clumsily, but realistically, in the same gait as the conversation in general, and in the same way many political conversations go these days, partly because, I think, where talking politics used to be a pastime, a voluntary activity, now our lives depend on it. When politics and emotion mix it gets very ugly, though it often seems to be unavoidable today. Russell wants the unions back, he thinks that will fix things, but Haz thinks it’s impossible, too much cheap labor, he’d rather get rich like his developer cousin; Val’s pissed she has to pay $450 a week for a dark, moldy little apartment; Effie writes out her goals in a list and goes to church; Meynedog comes out with random statistics he read in New Scientist, but likes talk about sex and smoke joints too; Perry says he’s old and finished anyway. They come no closer to solving their or their city’s problems, but in fact they don’t draw up any shorter than the discussions and debates in the newspaper and other media which also rattle off facts and statistics as if the final truth (at least Meynedog uses facts in print, unlike Val, and many journalists, with their Google-Wikipedia). They swear a lot, but more out of inarticulacy, or in a dialectic way and to cover for insecurities rather than to sound tough and violent. They are, especially Val and Haz, neurotic even. She emotes over the way she’s “not very good at working out what you should say … and what you shouldn’t say.” In another scene, she loses her phone and flips out screaming, like a cyborg gone haywire after losing an implant, but this, in my experience, is a totally realistic, believable reaction, very closely observed on Cortese’s, Alicia Talbot’s and Valerie Berry’s parts, as well as the other actors in their reactions.

The characters’ fidgety interactions with the set, all over the stage at any one time but not in attention deficit, feel natural and leave plenty to look at, more than can be observed in one viewing. Especially Meynedog, who with deliberation rearranges detritus in a way that seems to have some purpose, almost playfully, while he’s bored of the discussion’s holding pattern, very much at home, as if he knows where everything is on the site, but his construction of buckets, rubber straps, and milk crates never has an end in mind. The kid, the only really energetic one of the characters, would probably be a born inventor if he weren’t more interested in smoking pot, etc. The movement in general is very effective, like colorful pacing, febrile but trapped; drunken staggering and collapsing, or angry storming, or monkeying around, even an out-of-the-blue tickling attack on Val, add up, with the observed body language too, to complement the dialogue very closely. The dialogue is often layered, with two pairing off to talk more quietly, sometimes more seriously, in the back while more prominent dialogue goes on up front simultaneously. In these ways the play was born for the theatre and could never translate to the screen. Somehow the movement, despite its lack of purpose, and the dialogue, despite its inarticulacy, are very engrossing and the play seems very short.

Effie Nkrumah in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr
Effie Nkrumah in Buried City. Photo by Heidrun Lohr

There is something distressing and a little depressing about the play, and it is powerful to that extent. The characters’ anger is never resolved, nor is it the sort to resolve, the play just sort of plays out in the end in a wild dance of Meynedog to loud rock from his boombox as the electricity is shut off in stages. The world has been rearranged around them, seemingly like a natural disaster and they live in the rubble (economics when treated as  a serious science on par with physics, math, or biology, implies some natural force behind it when it is really just a social science and the only force really comes from people), and they all have enough intelligence, moral and otherwise, to be unable to adapt to it, but not enough to know what to do next. It is very easy to get pulled into their hopeless world — perhaps not hopeless, they do at least get to air their grievances, and there are tiny gestures of human warmth and comfort between the characters, mostly in the body language, amplified by the context, and not too heavy thanks to Talbot’s direction, but up-beat it is not — and the play is frighteningly close to the Sydney outside, whose problems often feel intractable with outside intervention unlikely and people too fearful to change it from within. In some ways it makes a neat theatrical complement to Dennis Grosvenor’s documentary from last year, State of Siege, about what the developers have been doing recently to northern Sydney.

The play perhaps owes much to Beckett, but still it is very much of Sydney, both in the subject, the style and the flavor — the characters are Sydneysiders through and through, from the way they talk, walk, move and behave, very much of the 2010’s too. It is rather miraculously more than the sum of its parts. The play feels quite fleeting, it is ripe right now but I suspect would go off or become dated in the future, unless played as a sort of theatrical novel of manners. But who can say? Director Alicia Talbot is working on a similar concept but for London, so it would seem she has her work cut out for her. Buried City should be seen now just in case, but perhaps not in a cheerful mood.

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