Performance review: Dead End, Blue Room Theatre

A Ukrainian-Australian cast and crew's surreal presentation of being assaulted by war.
Dead End. Image is a spotlit women stretching behind and to the right, with the light just on the left of her body as we look at her.

Dead End was a surrealist performance about war and isolation produced by a Ukrainian-Australian creative team. Forlorn figures trapped within a room during a time of war eked out a desperate existence, their freedom curtailed, their bodies deprived of sustenance and their minds vitiated by fear and claustrophobia. Transformed by entrapment, they became depersonalised beings oscillating between the ordinary preoccupations of survival in hiding and the paranoia and psychosis induced by a life under assault.

The audience witnessed moments of drudgery and moments of mental and physical breakdown under the barrage of incessant artillery fire and bombing. 

Bodily distortion featured prominently in the performance. The physicality of the process of bodily degradation was crucial to the artistic vision. The battered, bruised and disfigured body battled on to hold the chimerical harbinger of death – represented as a mythical monster – at bay. This creature lurked at the threshold of the room, threatening to burst in anytime, but was resisted till the end. Ritualistic cleansing and banishing became a part of the enactment of this resistance. 

A bathetic sequence midway through the performance captured something of the essence of conflict. The entrapped figure changed into black overalls and nervously and uncertainly stood before a microphone placed in the middle of his room, as if preparing to make an announcement. He opened up an envelope marked for him and pulled out the cards inside. Upon inspecting them, he found that these cards were all blank and empty. He was forced to discard them all and just plunge headlong into battle. 

To the reviewer, this moment represented the impossibility of “responding” to war, of knowing what to say or do when confronted with brutalisation and destruction. It captured something of the impossible predicament of victims of aggression, marked by the absence of directions and guidance to pull themselves out of conflict and the experience of being forced to succumb to violence and destruction. 

Dennis Chmelov and Anna Chmelova put in emotionally resonant lead performances. Their conceptualisation of the stage as a hiding space and the movement of bodies within it heightened the tensions of the theme.

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The sparse stage design and evocative lighting and sound design created a dreamlike atmosphere and captured the tension between indoor captivity and outdoor destruction during war. The strategic use of mirrors and haunting choreography and costume design for the mythical creature symbolising death contributed greatly to the surrealistic artistic vision. This was a moving meditation on war.  

Dead End
The Blue Room Theatre, Perth

Producer, director and performer: Dennis Chmelov
Performer: Anna Chmelova
Producer: Samantha Hortin
Sound designers: Anton Malyshev, Dennis Chmelov
Lighting designer: Nat Mijat
Stage manager: Riley Jackson
Costume designer: Mary Dixon 

Dead End was performed 23-27 January 2024.

Arjun Rajkhowa lives in Perth and enjoys writing about local arts and culture.