Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 2: The Ghost in the Suitcase
The second show on the bill at Chalkhorse was the premiere of Suitcase Royale's The Ghost of Rickett's Hill. For one reason or another I've always managed to miss the Suitcase Royale when they've come to Sydney, but there has always been a good buzz about their work out there on the local contemporary arts grapevine. Apparently Ghost... represents a change of direction for the company, and tonight's performance was the very first outing of the work. It was a warm and friendly crowd for this auspicious occasion, and the bulk of the audience seemed clearly familiar with the Suitcase oeuvre and highly appreciative of the disintegrating spectacle that followed.
Three aviators crash in the desert whilst ferrying a mysterious cargo, and two of the party set out across the desert in the direction of a mysterious blinking light, in hope of rescue. The captain, already half-mad with some unfathomable obsession, stays behind, guarding the cargo. It's a classic pulp mock-heroic fiction scenario, performed with an appropriate degree of self-conscious bombast, finely calibrated for comic effect. The blinking light turns out to be none other than Lighthouse Man, once surrounded by lapping ocean but now condemned to a dry and dusty existence due to the curse of the supposedly malevolent Wolf Man. The curse can be broken by the possession of a magical amulet, which for reasons of narrative convenience happens to be the mysterious cargo of the stranded aviators. The rest off the happenings within the show constitute a parade of encounters with increasingly absurd characters, none of whom actually advance anything which might be thought of as a 'plot'. Instead, what Suitcase Royale present is themselves in the process of losing the plot.
Clinging to their patently ridiculous personas within their nonsensical pseudo-narrative for far too long, each performer is confronted by escalating disappointments and betrayals from their fellows. Overall, the company stage themselves as a drunken and unreliable lot. From faulty costumes (Lighthouse Man's spectacularly over-the-top headpiece complete with blinking light, which he is largely unable to hold upright), to collapsing scenery (cardboard sculptures of mountains delicately balanced and easily upset), to missed textual and sound cues, forgotten lines and inept costume changes, missing props and the allegedly unexpected cutting up of a sentimentally important piece of clothing to construct someone else's costume that results in a near-altercation onstage. This is accident and incompetence re-presented as entertainment, and it is certainly a load of anarchic fun.
These are most successful when there's a clear attempt to hold things together, to bodge the already bodgy show just enough so it can get to the end and everyone can get back to the bar. The third performer is always trying to move past the current crisis or obstacle, and force the show to go on, even if this requires upstaging his recalcitrant fellow artists. Sometimes however, these staged crises don't seem overly convincing, with the playacted breakdowns and mock-drunken chaos seeming contrived and while highly amusing, borders upon indulgent at times. At the end of this unraveling spectacle one performer announces: "Ladies and Gentlemen, that was Suitcase Royale", implying that the group has destroyed its ability to continue, as if this performative disaster has killed the will-to-group-ness of our hapless trio.
Of course, this is clearly untrue. They're all having far too much fun to stop, and anyway, the audience keeps egging them on. With so much love in the room, why would they stop? I couldn't help but wonder how much more confronting and thrilling the work might have been if we in the audience had been allowed to believe, even for a moment, that this crisis of competence and company was actual. I remain confident that the assured playing style and clear talent of the performers will be able to deepen the dramaturgy of the performance as they continue to take Ghost... on the road, but I do question whether the company can really enter the dark spaces that they so playfully and casually evoke. The results of such an exploration might be extraordinary indeed. Check it out.
Stay tuned for Chronicles of an Imperial Panda Part 3: No Pig is an Island, coming to a blog near you soon!