Review by Cicely Binford
20 Aug 2016
Writer/Director Sally Richardson is pushing buttons with her creation Trigger Warning. The title itself is both a disclaimer and a dare – only look in if you’re prepared to be confronted with material that might shake you up. We live with triggers every day, and occasionally we’re given fair warning. But more often than not, the world we experience comes at us without a disclaimer, and we’re forced to see graphic images, hear harrowing stories, and live through trauma and catastrophe without the luxury of a warning. Richardson has at least given us the option to look away with that title, the choice not to buy a ticket to the show; but her motives for asking for our attention aren’t sensationalist, they’re sincere.
Trigger Warning is performed by three artists on stage: Joe Lui on lights, Cat Hope on sound, and Hayley McElhinney on, well, words. The trio create a kind of garage-punk-slam poetry fusion aesthetic: grungy, electrified, intimate, and raw. It rolls out like a live 3-D version of my Facebook feed in a lot of ways – headlines from stories of abuse, war, assault, survival, hope, despair from around the world – and Richardson’s clicked the links for me.
But rather than verbatim or direct testimony, Richardson gives us abstractions, interpretations, and impressions. McElhinney never names a specific person, place, or event, so unless we read the program notes, we can’t be sure just where the initial material or inspiration for the work was drawn from (a Balkan war survivor). Rather, the team tries to penetrate the essence of fear, trauma, sadness, anger and more, to establish a universal through-line among a series of vignettes from contrasting voices. In some cases, they succeed in pulling us into the dark heart of a particular moment, but other times, their experiment leaves me detached.
I had a similar feeling about this piece as I did about Perth Theatre Company’s From the Rubble, which shared similar themes; I felt like removing the specifics of a particular story made it less tangible, and therefore less likely to make an impact. I wanted to empathise with an actual person or people, to hear their voices and hear the story from their lips, as impractical or impossible that wish may be in a theatrical setting far, far away from the worlds hottest impact zones. However wonderful a performer McElhinney is (and believe me, she’s an actor with abundant gifts and resources that are all put to rigorous, sustained use here), I can’t help but feel there’s an awkward mismatching of representation in Trigger Warning that can’t be overcome in its current iteration.
There are some beautifully conceived and executed ideas in the piece, and there is so much room for exploration in its defiance of traditional performance structures as well as the myriad topics the piece attempts to unearth and dive into. McElhinney’s odyssey through this minefield of characters and voices is impressive and robust. Hope’s growling bass and looped dialogue grounds the work and gives depth to each story. Lui shines his unforgiving audience-facing lights on us and further creates this garage/attic feel with pendant, swinging incandescents and LED towers.
Trigger Warning grabs you by the collar and *respectfully* demands both your attention and your introspection. It’s a heavy, cerebral experience with visceral tendencies, and as a work in progress, it’s carrying quite a load. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, gets shed or repacked on its way to the next stage of development.