A History of Everything – Overwhelming and Commendable

A History of Everything. STC and Ontroerend Goed for Sydney Festival 2012
Joeri Smet in Sydney Theatre Company and Ontroerend Goed’s A History of Everything. Image by Brett Boardman 2012

A History of Everything, seemingly inexplicably, manages to do exactly as advertised: it tells a history of more or less everything that’s happened: in reverse chronological order from the date of viewing until the Big Bang, and beyond, into infinite space. It still seems impossible, inexplicable, and I’ve seen them do it. It’s overwhelming and commendable.

With a map of the world – flat, felt, and the only set dressing that isn’t black and netutral – on the floor of the stage, and props in seemingly endless pockets of the company’s plain black costumes, writers Alexander Devriendt and Joeri Smet from Belgian’s experimental theatre unit Ontroerend Goed, in collaboration with the show’s cast (made up of Ontroerend Goed and Sydney Theatre Company Residents players) tackle the world, and everything that has made it what it is, from war to natural disaster right down to the founding of Facebook. It wouldn’t be possible to undertake this mammoth task without a little irreverence, and that’s exactly what the company delivers, when they can – when warring nations can be characterised as childish squabbling, and tears can be sprayed on faces with water bottles to represent the mandated mourning of recently-deceased despot Kim Jong-Il.

However, it also wouldn’t be possible to map out a history of literally everything that has ever happened without being confronted with the concept of one’s own mortality. The company addresses this cleverly, with the personal milestones of the players interwoven with the events that shaped generations, centuries, millennia. “I was born,” they say, when we’re still in the recent past and experiencing their respective birth years, holding up their baby pictures.

When we confront the atrocities that have happened in this world – for example, when a slow flying plane is carried to hover over the outline of Japan, and twin mushroom clouds are placed on the map to mark Hiroshima and Nagasaki, we are also given stories of the players’ families, their roles in the war, and immediately this event that is larger than life becomes personal, and inexplicably universally personal, because the stories come from both the Australian players and their European counterparts.

The story unfolds rapidly, relentlessly, as time does in life – we can’t stop it. There’s not even an interval in this 110 minute show – we sit and watch life unravel before our eyes, retreating well past the time when we might have thought we mattered. Writer/Director Alexander Devriendt says in his Director’s Note that when he started to write the project his underlying message was “and if we fuck up, we weren’t that important,” which morphed into the gentler, though still decidedly aspiritual snippet from Richard Dawkins: “We are granted the opportunity to understand why our eyes are open, and why they see what they do, in the short time before they close for ever.” When we reach the end of the tale of creation as we know it, there is no image of God, of meaning or explanation for what we and countless others have lived through, suffered through, rejoiced in, or this history we’ve just witnessed.

There is, however, a sort of peace to be found in fact, in history and evolution, and life as we know it becomes more precious. We really are only here for a moment. We really will disappear into a larger story about the world during our lifetime, this year, our respective countries or allegiances – so we’d better figure out how to make the most of that speck of time when it’s still important, even just to ourselves.

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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