Review by Susie Conte
The curtain opens on an industrial room full of wires snaking across the stage. The wires begin to move, being pulled in opposite directions until they are taut. Voices come through the speakers and as they do, different lights flicker. A small movement from the corner, and we realise someone is sitting there. The actor comes into the light and begins to interact with the voices. What follows is a self-help loop that we realise he is trying to take in and implement. He needs to break a cycle to heal. From what?
Coming into this show, knowing the background is useful but not necessary. Betroffenheit means extreme shock, and the play deals with grief. Jonathon Young’s personal story of grief is what sets this tale in motion. He lost his daughter and two of her cousins to a cabin fire. His own ‘betroffenheit’ is at the heart of this venture. He created and wrote this piece, and plays the main character. But even without knowing this, you would be quickly pulled into the raw fear, suffering and pain which exudes from this production. This is the limbo state, when you can’t move forward or backwards, and you keep reliving the trauma without resolution. The room we see is inside the main character’s mind. In this space we meet parts of his psyche: five main players who are dressed in a carnivalesque Cirque du Soleil style, who show the circular, staccato, wobbly and confusing thoughts that swirl in his brain. It is, in Young’s words, an “uncertain, half-formed landscape.”
Act One, a Fellini-esque cacophony of sound, light, dance, voices, emotions and movement, leaves us breathless. We are as exhausted as the character must be in his grief, which is non-linear in its healing. This Act eloquently sums up the swirling thoughts that attack his brain, sending him towards drug addiction to escape the pain. The five performers that make up his ‘players’ – Bryan Arias, Cindy Salgado, David Raymond, Jermaine Spivey and Tiffany Tregarthen – are outstanding and jaw-dropping in their exquisite timing and talent. And it was a delight to see such a diverse cast – not just of race, but of body types and styles of movement. Among the men, Arias was lithe and streamlined; Raymond, a powerhouse tap dancer and solid presence; and Spivey an absolute delight in his elastic, springy body movements. Among the women, Salgado was tall and thin and able to move like a contortionist, at times willowy and airy, at others grotesque and clownlike; Tregarthen, a strong, beautifully muscular Amazonian dancer. This is truly an ensemble piece, and each performed like clockwork in unison.
Act Two has a different feel. Gone is the manic carnival atmosphere, replaced with a more somber mood. The stage is bare save an enormous wooden beam like the trunk of an oak tree in the middle of the stage. The performers are in variations of grey, and smoke starts to fill the room. This is where Young has to finally break the destructive cycle and confront what happened. He yells that he is not the victim, they are, but he is reminded that the way he is going he will become a victim. He has to confront his demons and his ‘players’ help him through. It is not fully resolved, because at the end of the day he has still lost a daughter, but he learns to live with his grief. It is real, honest and raw.
The lighting design by Tom Visser was the best I have ever seen, followed closely by the sound design from Owen Belton, Alessandro Juliani and Meg Roe. The lights were an integral part of the inner workings of Young’s mind and allowed us an insight into the light and shadow that inhabit the psyche. The sound design was rich, full and impeccably produced. The choreography from co-creator Crystal Pite was masterful. Taking in every type of dance style imaginable, ballroom, tap, modern dance, ballet, the result was a vision of movement as storytelling. The acoustics in the Heath Ledger theatre allowed us to hear the dancer’s breaths in stereo, which allowed an eerie feeling of being a part of the action on the stage.
As Young himself says in the programme, “art can remind us that healing is possible.” This is high concept art with a pure soul. I was profoundly moved and urge you to catch it if you can.
Betroffenheit runs until Feb 26th at Heath Ledger Theatre. For tickets and more information, visit the PIAF website here.