A double bill (one new, one in a return season) by the Melbourne-based theatre collective A Daylight Connection, presents two very different, wildly exciting works that explore ideas of First Peoples’ trauma, and the injuries colonisation and capitalism wreak on land, people and environment.
Whose gonna love ‘em? I am that i AM
Whose gonna love ‘em?, written and directed by Kamarra Bell-Wykes, a Yagera and Butchulla woman from south-east Queensland, offers a psychological portrait of three First Nations characters, linked as one, as they navigate therapy and their experience of intergenerational trauma. The play won the 2021 Patrick White Playwrights Award and is performed by Maggie Church-Kopp, Corey Saylor-Brunskill and Maurial Spearim.
The Malthouse’s Tower Theatre is set up with seating bank facing the small, bare stage, dressed only with three chairs. Live on-stage music is performed by the artist smallsound behind a see-through curtain in the corner – the ambient improvised electric guitar reverberating throughout the work to form an appropriately dystopic psychoscore.
The sense of the three characters being linked as one is reinforced by the writing and the direction. The script alternates between the actors delivering lines in unison and each repeating the others’ lines with a different emphasis and meaning. The tightly choreographed movements of the actors are in sync throughout: from their heads turning to their legs crossing. In concert, this conjures an ominous sense of bleak purposelessness, with each character pulled through a predestined set of movements and forced to endlessly repeat sequences.
Whose gonna love ‘em? I am that i AM is an extraordinary work. Defying traditional narrative structures of time and place, it is anchored in psychological experience. The dark themes – of colonised trauma, of inescapable cycles of oppression, of Aboriginal incarceration and the impact of being misunderstood and maligned as First Nations people who have lost land and lore – are each touched on purposefully, creating a moving and succinct piece of theatre.
The show – coming in at 50 minutes – is a poetic, psychic journey: conceptually innovative, flawlessly executed and some of the most exciting new theatre I’ve seen.
Writer and Director: Kamarra Bell-Wykes
Sound Designer and Production Designer: smallsound
Lighting Designer: Gina Gascoigne
Text and Movement Dramaturge: Carly Sheppard
Actors: Maggie Church-Kopp, Maurial Spearim and Corey Saylor-Brunskill
Chase is a one-woman show co-devised and written by Takalaka cross-disciplinary performance artist Carly Sheppard and Kamarra Bell-Wykes, directed by Bell-Wykes and performed by Sheppard.
It’s back for a return season, after premiering in 2022 at the Malthouse Theatre. As the play starts, we find Chase, the titular character, in an oversized camouflage T-shirt and trackies, long hair unkempt, in a post-apocalyptic domestic setting. She directly addresses the audience throughout, her Aussie drawl broad, her expletives fast and fruity, and her effervescent optimism at odds with her grim situation.
As she punctuates many declarations with ‘like and subscribe’, it becomes apparent that we are (very likely imagined, given the fiery hellscape raging outside) Chase’s YouTube audience.
She introduces us to her friends, for which Sheppard provides both voice and character: Influenza, a Barbie doll Valley-girl-style influencer; Traditional Girl, a baby doll dressed in feathered headband, who only speaks in gibberish that Chase translates; and the nihilistic voice of despair, Sally.
The diverse mix of characters and their larger-than-life personalities allow Sheppard to explore the absurdity of internet and influencer culture, and the dark sides of capitalism, as well as fetishised depictions of First Nations people as a magical other.
Picking up the Nietzschean theme of an eternal return from the previous work, in Chase’s world, the cycle of daily goings-on (pissing into a water bottle, saving the liquid to be drunk again later, chats with her friends and her audience, time in the Big Brother-like confession booth) are bookended by her night terrors, before waking up again (to the perky pizzicato strings of a 50s-era advertisement jingle).
While Chase’s eternal return is as hopeless as that depicted in Whose gonna love ‘em? I am that i AM, the execution of this theme common to the two works could not be more different.
Sheppard is a gifted comic actor, and it’s the physicality and whacked-out humour of the performance that makes the work (for all its darkness) a highly entertaining surreal comedy with bite rather than a work of despair.
Chase’s dystopian domestic world has been imaginatively realised by set and sound designer smallsound, with video projection work by Devika Bilmorea that brings to life the ravaged environment outside, Chase’s internet community and her ongoing trauma.
The wide stage of The Malthouse’s Merlyn theatre has been transformed with a naturalistic and detailed set, complete with raised bed, kitchen, pantry, living space and corner altar space – with a window revealing the burning world outside, with red light and smoke.
Moving away from naturalism, the cardboard-lined back wall of Chase’s home forms the canvas for projections of fire, news reports, destroyed cities and internet chat forums, which – although visually and technically impressive – can sometimes feel slightly distracting, particularly when multiple windows of fast-moving footage compete with Sheppard’s performance.
Chase’s altar occupies one corner of the stage, holding various totems – candles, decorations, a photo board with images of Jesus and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson. It’s clear that surviving alone in this desolate world requires a great deal of imagination and the cultivation of ritual.
Despite the show feeling slightly too long, with a lightly sagging middle, watching Sheppard is mesmerising enough to be worth it. Her stint as the Devil, Influenza’s boyfriend and baby-daddy, was so frenzied and made me laugh so loudly the woman in front of me turned around to give me a look.
As my theatre companion eloquently put it after the lights went down, ‘that was unhinged’. And it was – in the best possible way.
Concept and Performer: Carly Sheppard
Co-Devisers: Carly Sheppard and Kamarra Bell-Wykes
Director: Kamarra Bell-Wykes
Set Designer, Sound Designer and Composition: smallsound
Sound Designer and Composition: Richie Brownlee
Lighting Designer: Katie Sfetkidis
Videographer: Devika Bilimoria
Video Editor: Alex Mansell
Stage Manager: Cointha Walkeden
Producer: Annie Bourke
Whose gonna love ‘em? I am that i AM and Chase by A Daylight Connection are being presented as part of a double bill at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until 3 December 2023.