Attic Erratic: The City They Burned

Attic Erratic’s The City They Burned is a re-telling of the Genesis story of Lot and his family. I remember learning about godly Lot at my Anglican school: Lot is told by God and his angels to get out of town, Lot’s selfish wife looks back at their town of Sodom and God turns her into a pillar of salt for questioning his will and valuing her materialistic life.

The City They Burned. Photo by Sarah Walker
The City They Burned. Photo by Sarah Walker

Like slabs of the Old Testament, the understanding of what makes a good person is subjective and bits of the stories are often missed in the telling. When I drew Bible story pictures at primary school, they didn’t include gang rape, incest, incest-rape and God generally being a dick by destroying everyone, except Lot, with a rain of fire. And we didn’t discuss how Sodom gave us the word sodomy.

This tale is from books – the story of Lot is also in the Quran and the Torah – that continue to control so many people’s lives, morality and decisions. As long as these stories keep being told, we need to keep looking at them to try to understand and continue to question why they are still at the core of so much in our society.

Writer Fleur Kilpatrick says that she wants to question the concept of bad or evil. What did the people of the city of Sodom do to deserve being wiped off the face of God’s good earth?

What would happen if God were removed from the story?

Is a godless world compassionless and devoid of hope? Is it any different from a God-loved world?

Welcome to Sodom, where Lot (Scott Gooding) and his wife Ado (Jessica Tanner) are our hosts at a party. Lot is the manager of the factory where the good men of Sodom (Brendan McCallum, Dave Lamb and Soren Jensen) work. No one has heard from anyone in nearby Gomorrah in the last hours and they are getting worried as the party is in the honour of two inspectors (Dushan Philips and Kane Felsinger) who have just left Gomorrah. These men are outsiders; they dress strangely and don’t look like Sodomites; they don’t drink and they have a power that no one really understands.

The theatre is a converted warehouse in Collingwood. The audience go into a large living room that’s op shop chic with touches of “I want that” and “the eyes are following me” (designed by Rob Sowinski). We’re offered food on sticks and drinks – bring $5; you’ll want a drink – and it takes a while to realise that the performance has started and that we’re the guests at a party where there’s no line between audience and stage.

Conversations take place concurrently or in corners that only some people can see. Some of the most telling action happens in reactions; don’t feel bad for turning your back on an actor. The actors treat the audience like known friends or workmates and some people don’t like their conversations being overheard.

At one point, I was the only person watching Thamma (Shoshannah Oks) and Pheine (Brianagh Curran), Lot and Ada’s daughter’s, and one gave me a look that made me look away. Not long after, Ada stood near me as the worst thing she could imagine was happening metres away and I wondered if I should comfort her.

The City They Burned. Photo by Sarah Walker
Photo by Sarah Walker

Director Danny Delahunty ensures that the overall story is clear and keeps moving. The details are bonus secret moments that might only be shared between one person and an actor and may not happen at all in another performance.

As the mood of the party goes from fun to awkward to dangerous – the inspectors aren’t there to do good –  the audience is made to feel more and more uncomfortable, and it takes faith to trust that we are safe and only watching a game of make believe.

The second half of the night takes place in an old attic that’s been transformed into a more traditional theatre space. Here, the audience are allowed back into the safe role of unseen watchers, but the room is small and close and dark.

Lot and his family escaped to a cave that isn’t dark enough to not see what happens in the blackness. There are worse things than being turned into a salty metaphor, and it asks: what would you do if you thought you were the only humans left on earth?

While the first half makes the audience feel complicit in the decisions made at the party (none of us objected), the second half makes the audience watch the unfolding consequences of those decisions.

It’s not easy theatre to watch.

But it’s theatre that questions how form and writing can work so closely that it’s impossible to see where one ends and the other begins. Kilpatrick’s writing is so beautiful and strong that it disappears and doesn’t sound like writing because we’re so immersed in the immediate experience of being in Sodom.

Meanwhile Delahunty’s unseen control makes sure that the moments and connections that need to be seen aren’t missed. In the cave, I kept remembering seeing Thamma hug her dad at every opportunity at the party.

And the cast are exceptional. There’s no safely zone of a stage for them to hide in either.

The City They Burned declares Attic Erratic as the next independent company to make a mark so unforgettable that a hole would exist in Melbourne’s theatre scene without them. In the last three years, they’ve developed from theatre graduates doing their thing (I called them vanilla) to theatre makers who are getting bolder and more unforgettable with each production.

The audience capacity for this show is very limited and is already selling out. Book now and don’t wait until their Fringe season.

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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