Falling asleep while passing time in a nearby bookstore while waiting for Michael to arrive in the distant north of Carlton, then providing him with considerably poor directions, “Are you near the Courthouse Theatre”, “No, that’s on the other side of the street” as I stood beneath a large sign announcing “Courthouse Theatre”, I was quite worried that lacking chocolate I wouldn’t make it through the show without a long sleep, probably at some crucial instance in the proceedings. Bonnie and Ruby ran up breathless, running from Swanston St, Mike and I already were finished our first drinks of what would end up to be a night of many bottles, and so to one of the stranger European blow-throughs of the past few months.
Bringing a baby to the theatre is an often an act of misplaced hope, but unlike economy class, they usually depart before enduring too many withering scowls. Not so at B-File where the unhappy mewling has already begun once the martial anthems die, and continues growing and fading for most of the performance. An anxiety-inducing noise in any circumstances, here carefully planned to make us all unsettled as the intentional soundtrack to airport customs nightmares.
B-File cites September 11 as a somewhat starting point for the loss of liberty and citizenship, though the work is far more interesting when not considered as a metaphor for what has become the banal sabotage of human rights by western governments. It could be a metaphor or social commentary on Abu Ghraib and Lindy England’s Iraqi dog-on-a-leash, or the CIA’s extraordinary rendition, all small fragments in the detritus of a policy of dehumanisation. It’s far more interesting devoid of these comparisons that are never mentioned anyway in the performance, and seen as the desperate comedy of anonymous totalitarianism in the lineage of Slaughterhouse Five, Animal Farm, and Catch-22.
B-File exists on the z-axis of a Cartesian coordinate system. It moves back and forward through the depth of the stage, and assigns enormous weight of meaning to particular, vague regions. Farthest from us is the location of waiting, wherein a lack of identity within the state they wish to enter banishes the travellers to limbo and in a small area, little larger than what a body can occupy, their impedimenta creates a temporary installation of proof of existence. It is a haven the size of a chair. It is also the negative region of the axis; they do not exist. To cross the axis into the positive space of the state, and so accrue status as a citizen or legal visitor they must win favour of customs officer Phlegyas to pass the Styx. Unfortunately Phlegyas is insane and shifts the axis always slightly further away, always conditional on evermore impossible, unreasonable, hysterical demands, degenerating into loud, obscene, sexually vulgar remarks, evolution unwinding into snorting, squealing piggish barbarity.
One officer Paulo Dos Santos says, “Adelaide has no contemporary dance only stripping and …” (makes fucking gesture). “You know Nuureyv?” “… no …” “You know Peena Bousch?” “… no …” “You know jzhonky moov?” “… no …”. Not warmed up to do the splits, Silvia Pinto Coelho is forced by Paulo Castro (“This guy with Rammstein tattoo, when I make he spilt, he could touch”, holds finger and thumb to illustrate cock brushing floor) to dance, doing an inspired Trisha Brown combination, bad New York post-modern dance at its finest, and the mid-stages of another humiliating interrogation, where her dignity remains despite demands to know what she thinks when she fucks.
Again an interrogation, this time Madeleine Lawrence sexually assaulted and groped by Jo Stone and, “Your passport says you are Greek, why don’t you understand what I am saying?” “You are from Austraiiya, name four animals. Not Kangaroo, Crocodile …” More unnecessary probes into lovers, sex and intimacy by officers employed for their fondness of bestiality over their respect for the law and human rights. And even they do not trust each other, a glaring absence of self-esteem erupts through violent demands to see each other’s identification, and one upmanship, “I am marrying the boss in a few months”, “My grandfather served in the force”, a grotesque possibility here that when institutions make abuse of power a policy, only the sadists remain.
This is a hard, physical performance, extremely well rehearsed and bearing the mark of an acute critical eye. There is barely a movement out of place, and certainly none not thought about, and the physical and vocal dexterity of the performers serves to inhabit the space of a nightmarish, frighteningly insane enough to be true horror world. The language flies between German, the undeclared default, that slips back and forth with English, then Portuguese, Italian, Greek, the languages of the International Community.
There was one sticking point for me, and one other moment of dissatisfaction. The entry of Jo, the second Police Officer midway through, after the intense performances of the two Paulos did not slide quite smoothly for me. This was the introduction of a new and different dynamic, the superior to Paulo, and an uneasy transfer of authority. It’s a really minor thing in what is a beautifully executed and extremely well directed performance, but for a moment, I didn’t quite believe. A part of this which is my own prejudice is that I find Australian theatre accents a bit unbelievable. In Grace, the final spat ‘t’ puncturing an accumulation of letters like a sharp nail is not something you tend to hear in vernacular, the precise enunciation overlaying what is a fairly sloppy spoken dialect for me often splits the identity of the performer into character and actor.
The moment of dissatisfaction came perhaps an hour in, when the lights under a wall of sound blacked out. I thought, “Is this the end? No, not yet, oh crap, I really hope this isn’t it because it’s too short, it needs to go on, omg! (yeah I talk to myself in chat-speek) it’s so not ready to finish”. I spent a good deal of B-File thinking “genius genius genius” and “can’t you think of another word?” and when it ended so soon, I was in torment.
As an aside, I was really saddened at the complete lack of awareness in the contemporary dance scene here of this show, after-all, this is a town that got uptight about Jan Fabre, and looks to companies like Ballets C de la B, Sasha Waltz, the whole Brussels and Berlin tanztheater scene as something near the pinnacle of contemporary dance. Yet members of the B-File ensemble have worked with all these and other companies, and for us at the end of the world here with scant chance to see firsthand this era of performance, it’s a rare gem that was stupidly missed through pathetic lack of advertising.
It would have been agony to have seen a performance I thought was not so good, and then this morning have to stick the knife into its back, especially because the remainder of the night involved a number of bottles of champagne, our little gang of audience and half the cast. But despite my unabashed love of eurotrash, and to hear these languages spoken so I feel homesick, this is a profoundly strong performance, swiftly traversing physical and verbal humour, moments of embarrassing cringing, and not occasionally cold threatening anxiety, often all vertiginously at once. B-File unfolds a horrible moment of powerlessness in which people aren’t simply humiliated, abused, tormented, all without reason and then to walk away; once on the wrong side of the axis you are no longer human, there is never any leaving, no future, no possibility of hope.