Orlando opens at Dark Mofo

It was cold in Hobart last night. The sun’s out today but tonight promises to be colder, darker and weirder as the third Dark Mofo festival opens and this gorgeous city celebrates art that’s made for icy dark nights. A highlight of the theatre program is The Rabble’s Orlando, which opens tonight at the Theatre Royal and finishes on Sunday. Anne-Marie Peard is in Hobart for the festival and spoke to members of The Rabble as they rehearsed in Melbourne.

Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker
Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker

This is the third production of Orlando. The first was at the 2012 Melbourne International Festival and it was part of the Brisbane Festival’s independent theatre program in 2014.

Emma Valente, co-founder, with Kate Davis, and director of The Rabble, says that festivals “provide such an important context for our work. During a festival audiences are more adventurous, they are more likely to see something that they may never chose otherwise and they are excited to see something different. They are also an important meeting place for artists, a place where you can talk with and see work from artists from all around the country and the world.”

With renowned performance artist Marina Abramović as part of Dark Mofo, The Rabble are ideally placed to welcome audiences who are eager to embrace original creative voices.

No one makes theatre like The Rabble. They leave some critics – like me – and audiences raving with love; while others have stormed out in fury.

The first time I saw them was Special at La Mama in Melbourne in 2011. I took a friend who said she’d see anything as long as it wasn’t contemporary dance. At the end of this show, she looked at me and said, “I wish it had been contemporary dance”.

The stage was mouldy green with a toilet-paper back curtain, a mound of earth and an exercise bike. Actor Mary Helen Sassman was eight months pregnant and wore a native American headdress and a pink stretchy dress, when she wasn’t naked. With 60+ actor Liz Jones, the work explored the sometimes hilarious and mostly painful and warped relationship of parental resentment. It was like watching a dream that you thought (and maybe wished) you’d forgotten.

No one makes theatre like The Rabble dare to make.

Orlando is based on a deep and layered understanding of Virgina Woolf’s 1928 novel about a young man who doesn’t grow old but becomes a woman and lives for three centuries. Woolf’s story is on the stage, but there’s very little of her text.

I think that the truth of any work is in its subtext: the words that are never spoken or written, the scenes that are never seen. Meaning is found in the white spaces between words on pages and the silence and empty space on a stage. It’s why we can read the same books and see the same shows and argue for hours over the truth about what creator was sharing.

A Rabble work is formed in that empty space. Their work lets us get lost in the white void where words disappear and meaning becomes clear.

It’s difficult to describe the experience of seeing their work, so I asked Dana Miltins, who plays Orlando, to explain it.

“Oh my gosh I find this question really hard as well… I can’t fully answer it.

“To me, The Rabble have a unique way of distilling a novel that captures its spirit without telling the story as it reads, blow by blow. If you’ve read Orlando then I don’t believe you’ll feel ripped off by our version – the themes and ideas that exist within and behind the narrative are all there; but, the play exists on its own as well and is very much The Rabble’s Orlando.”

Dana Miltins. Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker
Dana Miltins. Orlando. Photo by Sarah Walker

The process of how it becomes The Rabble’s Orlando is as fascinating as the result.

Actor Sassman (who plays Orlando’s lovers, along with Angus Cerini) describes a Rabble rehearsal.

“A typical rehearsal starts with a 30-minute high intensity workout – usually circuit training but not always. I’m confused as to whether this is done as a bonding/unifying tool or to encourage competitiveness amongst the cast – either way we often find ourselves comparing abs and keeping a lunges tally. Once we’ve all broken a cool sweat we start to work. It’s always physical, very little discussion. Just on the floor and getting on with it. Emma and Kate work us hard. We love it.”

The work involves hours of improvisation and exploration of character and text, most of which never make it to the stage. The finished product is a distilled and clarified version of the results of this process.

Sassman talks about how they met through La Mama about nine years ago, although Valente and Davis met at Swinburn University earlier.

“Thank goodness! For Emma, Kate, Dana and I, our four-way working relationship was forged in blood, sweat, baby’s tears and breast milk (Mary Helen and Dana have performed while pregnant and Kate’s baby is due in July) as we made and toured shows on shoestring budgets – us with huge ideas and small CVs.

“I think we surprise each other, inspire each other and above all we truly trust each other to approach the making of the work with full integrity. Now with this Orlando we have Angus on board – fearless, eerily gifted and generous, he fits in just fine!”

The company are never afraid to share their admiration and trust for each other. At the end of the first Orlando season, I asked Miltins how she worked with director Valente to create her emotionally fearless and physically demanding performance. She simply said, “Emma’s a genius”.

Dana goes on to describe Kate as a genius. Davis and Valente work together to create each new work but while Emma directs (and lights), Kate designs. What’s most striking about her design is it’s use of colour and texture.

Orlando begins in a world that’s milk and semen white. With pebbles, fur, tulle, cotton and water, it’s a world that begs to be touched, felt and rolled naked around in.

Miltins says that Davis creates sets “we have to exist in, as opposed to on. There’s generally quite a lot to negotiate on her sets and I see them sometimes like an additional character. You have to interact with them and respond to them; they affect you and your performance. I love working in these environments and I think Kate’s a genius.

“I love most the element of danger that comes with it. To me, that element is what puts the sizzle in live theatre. Just the idea that anything could happen.

“The slipperiness, the way you have to lift you feet to clear the water when you walk, the way it changes your balance, and of course the cold. Her sets make you exist in the present because they demand attention and focus just to physically negotiate the terrain. And really that’s all any actor wants, to be truthful and present in the moment.”

There’s a pool of water on the Orlando stage. Dana is “praying, seriously praying” that the plans to heat it for this season come off.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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