The reopened Eleventh Hour Theatre, housed in a converted church in Fitzroy, is the backdrop to Cavalcade, a new work by Melbourne theatre fixture William Henderson.
Henderson has set critics no mean feat to describe this work – an absurd piece devoid of narrative structure and clear thematic linkages. Put simply, perhaps overly simply, Cavalcade presents multiple sets of poetry, musical interludes, performance art and Beckettian banter. A multitude of topics are covered – from state sovereignty to flipping eggs.
No matter how seemingly nonsensical, everything Henderson puts on the stage is self-referential and laden with Eurocentric intellectualism of the arts and social science variety. The work feels like a test of one’s cultural knowledge; how many witty quips that draw on extensive theoretical ideas and cultural references can you catch as they careen out of the mouths of performers Tom Considine and Peter Houghton?
Despite difficulties in engaging with the mental gymnastics Henderson asks for, Cavalcade creates an alluring cosmopolitan energy. It’s as if the production team and audience are coming together to explore the possibilities of theatre, as well as poke fun at its traditions. Both require a high level of prior engagement with the arts.
It’s unlikely many people will take up this challenge, especially as audiences are used to this kind of content sitting in art galleries as short-form videos where they’re in control of their engagement or lack thereof.
The star of the show is undoubtedly Henderson’s writing, followed closely by Henderson and Julie Renton’s design. The two have sourced, or perhaps created, fabulous imitation Dada sculptures and other visually intriguing props.
The show’s weakness is ironically also Henderson in his role as Cavalcade’s director. He struggles to draw out the full comedic potential in both the script and performances. Placing performer John Jacobs offstage while he recites poetry also feels like a misstep. Jacobs sounds so much like fellow performer Tom Considine, or vice versa, that when he’s mic’ed up the performance appears to be something Considine has pre-recorded.
Henderson has thrown everything at the wall in this production and most of it sticks, but Australia’s cultural propensity to snub ‘highbrow’ content suggests audiences may not warm to the theatrical vision Cavalcade presents.
Written and directed by William Henderson
Actors: Tom Considine, Peter Houghton and John Jacobs
Pianist: Peter Dumsday
Eleventh Hour Theatre, Fitzroy, Victoria
Cavalcade will be performed from 9-21 May 2023