Distraction Camp

BATS Theatre, Wellington

31/08/2010 - 11/09/2010

University Theatre, the Arts Centre, Christchurch

27/11/2009 - 06/12/2009

Production Details

Free Theatre Christchurch invites you to a House of Illusions. Inside, live music is performed by a twin pianist and cellist as actors tango together on a small dance floor, centre of the stage. Between dances and songs, the actors move to small dressing areas at the edge of the stage, and prepare for a series of performances, given for the audience and for each other.

A bishop hears the confession of a young penitent, and gives penance. A judge hears the testimony of a thief, who is consequently punished severely by an ominous masked figure. A camp commandant trains his "horse" – a young woman who must be disciplined and properly put through her paces. A woman sings soulfully in remembrance of times past. The thief sings for the camp commandant, and in reward is given the head of her torturer in a box.

This is Distraction Camp, the major new work for 2009 from Christchurch’s award-winning Free Theatre. Distraction Camp takes further Free Theatre’s previous work in Faust Chroma, which revolved around the exploration of acting in theatre and everyday life. It also addresses the perverse fascination with Nazi symbolism in New Zealand that has been exposed in recent controversies.

Distraction Camp sits conceptually in relation (not quite opposition) to the "concentration camp," drawing on a range of texts, films and images to explore a provocative premise: whereas the experience of the concentration camp was one of scarcity and hunger, the current experience of late capitalism is one of obesity and obscenity, which ironically can be seen to lead to the same effect. Induced constantly to consume entertainments that revolve endlessly around distractions and commodities, audiences have become like the Muselman – as the walking dead were known by fellow prisoners in the concentration camp – resigned to a way of living without meaning, obese yet starved of real nourishment.

The unifying form for Distraction Camp is the tango. Tango (which began in Argentine brothels) with its intense expression of desire is a provocative and problematic basis for the exploration of the brutality inside our sentimentality. Out of the dance, with its oscillating relationships of power and submission, control and passion, emerge scenes; the actors reflect on what is going on inside and outside the theatre, addressing the audience, blurring the lines between actor, character and spectator.

The dance floor is central, a crucifix as well as a crucible upon which the performers explore rituals of power before huge mirrors that – like the theatre – reflect back true and distorted images. Monitors show images from the city outside intercut with a live video feed from a roaming camera operator inside. This House of Illusion allows a potential for freedom from the outside world, but it is also constantly under surveillance.

Distraction Camp runs for a limited season. Don’t miss your chance to see this original and innovative work. 

Performance Dates and Times: Friday 27 November, Saturday 28, Sunday 29, Wednesday 2 December, Thursday 3, Friday 4, Saturday 5, Sunday 6. 8pm start time.

Ticket Prices: $20 waged, $15 unwaged. Special offer: group bookings of 6 or more pay only $15 a ticket.
Cash bar – sorry, no eftpos available.
For bookings and further information contact Te Puna Toi @ (03)3653159 or email admin@freetheatre.org.nz

Wellington Tour 2010 @
BATS, 1 Kent Terrace
Tuesday 31 August – Saturday 11 September (excluding Sun/Mon)
Running Time: 80 minutes
Book @ BATS: (04) 802 4175 or email book@bats.co.nz
Ticket prices: $20 / $13

Free Theatre in Wellington

“Unlike most shows I programme at BATS, I was fortunate enough to see the opening night of Distraction Camp in November last year. One of the first things that struck me about the work is that the style is nothing like work that comes out of Wellington right now, which is one of the main reasons I programmed it. I believe that it is important for Wellington audiences and practitioners to see this style of work to challenge the status quo and incite discussion.” – Steph Walker, Programme Manager, BATS    

Distraction Camp is the acclaimed follow-up production to Free Theatre Christchurch’s award-winning Faust Chroma. Here’s what Wellington critics had to say about Faust Chroma

Faust Chroma embeds itself in your memory and is deeply rewarding. Peter Falkenberg’s direction is gutsy and quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, fitting the text like a glove… The whole cast is mind-blowing in a production that pushes them all emotionally and physically… This is a touring production from Christchurch’s Free Theatre and we can only hope to see more of them up here.” – Lynn Freeman, The Capital Times, Wellington

“A particular skill of this company appears to be creating visually stunning moments which are full of impact as they assault the eye and ear… I was extremely thankful to the Free Theatre for bringing this work up from Christchurch.” – Helen Sims, The Lumiere Reader 

Faust Chroma is a shot in the arm for alternative theatre: a rich feast for the senses and the intellect that lingers well after the final chromatic scale fades to silence.” – John Smythe, Theatreview, Wellington

Bats Theatre, 1 Kent Terrace 
Tuesday 31 August – Saturday 11 September (excluding Sun/Mon) 
Book @ BATS: (04) 802 4175 or email book@bats.co.nz
Ticket prices: $20 / $13 

Body Festival 2010  
University Theatre, Christchurch Arts Centre (Entrance of Rolleston Ave)
Date/Time Sat 25th & Sun 26th September at 8pm
                      Wed 29th September – Sat 2nd October 8pm
Cost $25, $15 (concessions) from Te Puna Toi (03) 365 3159

Director’s Statement about DISTRACTION CAMP

It starts with the actors cleaning the beautiful wood of the especially constructed dance floor, a stage on the stage that becomes a meta-stage but also a fetish that needs to be revered and knelt down to and made into an altar in the cleaning process. 

When the actors put on their tango shoes and for the first dance step onto the stage, this becomes a kind of initiation into the world of the tango/brothel as well as of the distraction camp in which they have to perform. The ambiguity of the theatre as glamorous, shiny fantasy world which is surrounded by mirrors that enable vanity, narcissism and exhibitionism, and the possibility of humiliation and degradation are prefigured and established. 

The tango dance has the same kind of ambiguities of power and submission, glamour and dirt, as do the three scenes of Jean Genet’s The Balcony that are quoted in the production – the Bishop, the Judge and the General/Camp Commandant scenes – and the three pieces of films which are enacted – from Frida, The Tango Lesson, and The Night Porter (all films directed by women: Julie Taymor, Sally Potter, Lisa Cavani).

At base, I staged Distraction Camp as a performative enquiry into the nature of acting through theatre and film, song and dance. Distraction Camp is designed to sit conceptually in relation (not quite opposition) to the “concentration camp.” 

My premise for the production is provocative: whereas the experience of the concentration camp was one of scarcity and hunger, the current experience of late capitalism (following Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies) is one of obesity and obscenity, which ironically can be seen to lead to the same effect. Forced endlessly to consume entertainments that revolve endlessly around distractions and commodities, audiences have become like the Muselman, resigned to a way of living without meaning, obese yet starved of real nourishment. 

Our idea that we live in a free world, which is being continuously fostered by the media, may turn out to be an illusion. In The Theatre and its Double, Antonin Artaud says “We are not free… And the theatre has been created to teach us that first of all” (79). In Genet’s The Balcony, the re-enactment of perversity in the brothel is mirrored and shown to be the same as outside; the outside needs what happens in the brothel, because whatever is called bad or evil can be projected into it and thereby disavowed. 

Taking The Balcony as inspiration, Distraction Camp questions itself as theatre and its own raison d’être, and asks: are we creating our own House of Illusions in the Free Theatre? Is the work we do just another escape, or is it a counter-world to the outside, to the late capitalist, which is a perverted world from our perspective. Do we just escape into a now more nostalgic than utopian illusion, or are we still rehearsing for a revolution, creating another way of living that can catch on and infiltrate the outside world in the way that Artaud envisioned the theatre as a plague? 


MADAME: Greta Bond
THE BISHOP: Ryan Reynolds
JUDITH: Coralie Winn
THE JUDGE: Simon Troon
SALOME: Marian Mc Curdy
JOHANNA: Liz Boldt
DELILAH: Emma Johnston
PIANO: Chris Reddington
CELLO: Nicole Reddington
SOPHIA: Sophie Lee

Designer: Chris Reddington
Film & Images: Ryan Reynolds
Music Arrangement: Chris Reddington, Nicole Reddington
Lighting: Aidan Simons
Front of House: Toni Radics, Mike Berry, Ali Foster
Dance Instructor: Kerry Mulligan
Text Translation: Sue Hassell, Alejhandra Mercado
Dress Designer: Holly Liberona
Photography: Tjalling De Vries
Producers: George Parker, Greta Bond, Liz Boldt.

1hr 20 mins, no interval

Driven to Distraction

Review by Lynn Freeman 14th Sep 2010

On the day of the Christchurch earthquake, this visiting Christchurch Free Theatre company were the epitome of the saying ‘the show must go on’. They were all affected to some degree by what had happened, and added a brief but valid reference to the earthquake. The cast were highly charged rather than distracted in their presentation of this play about how people seek distractions from their mundane lives, and even from imminent danger.

Free Theatre’s work is a million miles from the traditional NZ theatre fare of narrator driven scripts. They have taken Jean Genet’s The Balcony as a starting point and turned it into something related – but ‘other’.

The tango is at the core of this elegantly beautiful work, in part reflecting the way people have flocked to get dancing lessons after shows like Dancing with the Stars. Life is an intricate dance. The tango motif also speaks of human relationships, one moment close and intimate, the next you can find yourselves flung away or you pull away into the arms of another. You can be close to someone then very alone.

Certainly this play is permeated with characters who lack social skills and seek escape in dressing up as powerful figures – bishops, judges, SAS, and tormenting the weak to boost their own flagging self esteem. Their fantasies are playing out in a bordello, albeit and expensive and classy one. It is a comment also on actors which is how they see the women there: “even when they’re taking something off they’re putting something on.”

Distraction Camp starts with a long slow ritual of the dancers cleaning the stage and it quickly becomes mesmerising as they move and breathe. This is a disarming production, it’s a tough 90 minutes, dwelling as it does on relationships and morality, punishment and resilience. The cast is brilliant, the production meticulously acted and choreographed, and in an inspired ending, the audience has to make a choice. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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No escape as reality and illusion unite

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 03rd Sep 2010

Chris Reddington’s setting of red velvet curtains, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, a chandelier, and two tall, metal cages with a bishop’s regalia in one and a judge’s in the other is appropriately voluptuous and theatrical for a brothel called The House of Illusions. It could be anywhere but two CCTV screens showing us the Bats foyer and the street outside anchor it in our world.

Christchurch’s Free Theatre’s Distraction Camp copies, adapts, distorts, and echoes Jean Genet’s famous 1956 play The Balcony. Like Genet’s play Distraction Camp is set in The House of Illusions and contains scenes similar to Genet’s of three clients playing a bishop hearing the confessions of a young woman, a judge punishing a thief, and a Nazi camp commandant training his horse, played by a prostitute, in a cleverly executed pas de deux of dressage.

In The Balcony there is a revolution taking place in the streets and eventually  Genet’s role-players in the brothel are persuaded to act out their roles for real and the play ends with the Madame getting ready to provide more opportunities for people to role play and act out their fantasies of power and sex in a confusion of reality and illusion. She tells the audience to leave by a side door and go home “where everything – you can be quite sure – will be falser than here.”

There’s a revolution of sorts going on in Distraction Camp: a lone Maori protester, artillery weapons on the move, soldiers in paper masks marching through Christchurch and outside The Beehive. It’s all a bit confusing because the screens are small, but we are able to see clearly a tiny street gang getting as far as bashing on the doors at Bats but then quickly dispersing on hearing the voice of the Madame. There’s no danger in this revolution and it’s only in this scene does it really impinge on the action on stage.

The ending is not quite as clear cut as Genet’s though it’s one he might approve of. Reality and illusion unite in an ironical, Pirandellian celebratory finale in which one is invited into the House of Illusions. No discreet side door escape back to your home and your false, dead-end world but a step into this contemporary concentration camp of bloated capitalism and its rewards of ritualistic mind-numbing, distracting bread and circuses.

The production, setting, costumes, and lighting are impressive; the acting and dancing committed and stiffly serious in a very Continental way (there’s quite a bit of tango dancing). But by using Genet’s play Free Theatre is distancing itself from an audience here who may be only vaguely aware of him as a playwright and feel that his allegory is too European or even too old-fashioned and occasionally boring for all its sensationalism. 
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


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The puzzlement and pain of paradox

Review by John Smythe 01st Sep 2010

Named to suggest a different kind of concentration camp, Distraction Camp melds the paradoxes inherent in tango (the man’s leading liberates the woman, who gets to shine), with the opening scenes of Jean Genet’s The Balcony (which expose the reliance of church, justice and the military on the flourishing of evil, crime and unquestioning discipline).  

My premise for the production is provocative,” writes Peter Falkenberg in his director’s Statement: “whereas the experience of the concentration camp was one of scarcity and hunger, the current experience of late capitalism (following Baudrillard in Fatal Strategies) is one of obesity and obscenity, which ironically can be seen to lead to the same effect. Forced endlessly to consume entertainments that revolve endlessly around distractions and commodities, audiences have become like the Muselman, resigned to a way of living without meaning, obese yet starved of real nourishment.” 

I presume he’s talking about free-to-air TV there. It is a question of what we freely subjugate ourselves to. Are we free to choose or are we being manipulated? Are ‘They’ anaesthetising us or are we creating the ‘free market’ for things which do that by demanding them ourselves?

The phenomenon of fetish is at the extreme end of the means by which we either escape ‘reality’ or preoccupy ourselves with some specific part of it.

The first obeisance the eight performers make is to their stage. On their knees, they ritually polish the squat cross, of varnished pine with darker inlays at the centre and around the edges. Muslim prayer and prostration before a pontiff or monarch come to mind …

Accompanied by a haunting cello (Nicole Reddington), soon joined by a portentous piano (Chris Reddington), the slowness of the reverential polishing and its repetition – each one works their way around the entire floor – signals this is serious art. Submit, then, to its different pace.  

At last they don their shoes and tentatively step onto the floor, practising their tango moves, checking each other out, randomly pairing, parting and mixing. There is sensuousness, laughter and a song about how mocking and flamboyant it all is, as they seek some higher state of grace … And because this, too, plays out at a mesmerising pace, I have time to note that the women are in control: the illusion of the strong male leading to enable her flamboyance is missing.

So to the sequences inspired by The Balcony’s ‘House of Illusions’ (a brothel). Two tall cages adorn the stage, one featuring a bishop’s rig, the other that of a judge.

Once more there is ritual in the lighting of the candles by Madame (Greta Bond), and the donning of the robe, surplus, mitre and massive crucifix by the Bishop (Ryan Reynolds). He intones his assumed piety and authority with great resonance as the baby-voiced penitent, Judith (Coralie Winn), confesses her lustful thoughts towards him, compounding her mortal sinning at every turn.

The dripping of candle wax on bare flesh as a penance is as dramatic as the pain it inflicts is illusory. And a spat between Madame and Judith breaks the theatrical illusion too. The long monologue that follows is alleviated by the spectacle of his self-flagellation and the streaming of breaking news on TV monitors, where a protest rally in Civic Square and Parliament grounds – and sometimes in Christchurch’s Cathedral Square – is underway, with blonde (and later white-faced) storm-troopers getting reading to put down the insurrection.

The joys of BDSM set the tone for the scene where the Judge (Simon Troon) first fawns at the feet of Salome (Marian McCurdy) before interrogating her as a thief, as Johanna (Liz Bolt), the ‘executioner’ – all black vinyl and plastic, and aloft on stilts – discovers what’s been snatched in Salome’s snatch (sic) and whips out the punishment: another dramatic illusion.

The Judge’s summing up – about needing an underclass and the crimes they commit in order to have justice – is accompanied by more TV coverage of the civil unrest. And throughout a CCTV camera monitors the Bats Theatre foyer and the roadway beyond the front door.

Genet’s General is now a Camp Commandant (George Parker), which allows the paradox of fetishising Nazi regalia and fascist behaviour to be examined, as he harnesses his ‘horse’ Delilah (Emma Johnston) while recycling Hamlet’s advice to the Players, then puts her through her dressage paces in tangoesque style.

The large mirror that backs the stage – confronting us, the audience, with ourselves – comes into its own here. Hamlet’s “rogue and peasant slave” speech gets a run too, as the Commandant castigates himself for his lack of passion, then a bare-breasted woman in jodhpurs, braces and a Nazi cap German adds a touch of cabaret.

The tango motif is reasserted, interlaced with bon mots – e.g. “I want to be a good girl, not a bad girl”; “There are no good girls, only good actors” – when suddenly the TV screens show a riotous group at the front door, invading the foyer … But the heavy banging at the door is airily dismissed by Madame, the monitors are turned off and we are invited to dance with the performers.

The idea, I expect, is for us to examine our own complicity in ignoring the ‘real world’ while dancing in our own houses of illusion. But of course the real question is whether we embarrass the performers by refusing to play the game or get up and go along with it – and if so, so what? As with Faust Chroma, the ending fails to focus the essence of the play’s thesis but serves as a distraction – which may well be the point, except how many punters will sit down and have a good think about that?

“Are we creating our own House of Illusions in the Free Theatre?” Falkenberg asks. “Is the work we do just another escape, or is it a counter-world to the outside, to the late capitalist, which is a perverted world from our perspective. Do we just escape into a now more nostalgic than utopian illusion, or are we still rehearsing for a revolution, creating another way of living that can catch on and infiltrate the outside world in the way that Artaud envisioned the theatre as a plague?”

Comments responding to his question are welcome, below.

Meanwhile the question that arises for me around the work of Free Theatre is, why preoccupy yourselves with the works of rarely staged European playwrights when you could emulate them better by creating original work that might more immediately impact the world you seek to confront?

That said, I have to add that I left Distraction Camp feeling this could only have come from Christchurch – it’s a piece that somehow speaks directly to the contradictions especially inherent in that fair city – and Wellington theatre is the richer for sharing the puzzlement and pain of that paradox.
For more production details, click on the title above. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News. 


John Smythe September 4th, 2010

I saw your post late last night, George, and thought to reply in the morning. What a difference a day makes. Things that seemed important then …

I hope this day, which must have started badly for you all, now finds you reassured that your loved ones are safe and well, and whatever infrastructure you rely on in Christchurch to give you shelter and support your lives, let alone your creative passions, has not suffered too much damage.

Tonight’s TV news paints a picture of massive devastation while a Christchurch resident has emailed, “most of CHCH is absolutely fine but it was frightening at the time” – so even this reality is a matter of subjective perception and interpretation.

Why do I see Distraction Camp as a particularly Christchurch work? Because I have always perceived Christchurch as a city of dichotomies: wealth / poverty; conservatism / socialism; conformity / anarchy; gentle souls / crimes of hate and violence; grey-haired cyclists / boy racers; landscape artists / pig farmers who rise to high office …

This is how I come to perceive Free Theatre’s ongoing fascination with Faustian contracts, contradictions, routes of escape or means of distraction, as germane to your lives as well as an alternative to them: another paradox?

Best wishes 

George Parker September 3rd, 2010

First of all, thank you very much for coming last night John. As I have mentioned to you, a big part of this tour for us is to connect with the Wellington theatre and arts community, so we really appreciate the effort.
Actually just before you came in we had briefly discussed a point central to your review and your subsequent response to Ryan. The question was: who wrote the performance? As Ryan points out (and Peter explained last night), Distraction Camp is a devised work that collages images/quotes/references that include The Balcony, Hamlet, etc, that were workshopped during the devising process because they speak to, mirror, echo (and not all harmoniously) the central idea of acting on stage and in life – in combination they present a dialectic that is meant to be provocative. This includes the over-arching form and physical language of the tango. They are not chosen randomly but because they are the most useful way to engage with our concerns and questions. If we can find a NZ text that does that then we’ll explore it, but it would be completely reworked for performance, in conversation with the other texts – and this may include unusual everyday performances – eg the colourful performance that is Michael Laws (The Judge).
These texts are not simply represented lock-stock-and-barrel, they are completely reimagined – there is a significant difference between quoting The Balcony and “replicating it”, word and action – it was a pretext (albeit an important one among many) to explore. If you look at the Genet you’ll see there are no “large tracts” replicated – and the differences would speak to our reason for using the ideas in the present. Hamlet’s speech to the Players?
Well, I suspect it’s never been presented by a brothel John dressed in SS garb playing out his S&M fantasy to tame a female ‘horse’ who is willfully 'acting up'. But I may be corrected. Some don’t get the Hamlet reference but just think it is the pontificating of another failed idealist spouting ideology about women playing women – ie acting correctly – so that he can be a man. Others recognize it and the reference may offer reconsideration about the way we act in life. Either way, the idea is to prompt a conversation.
But I agree the point is performance, and I would in no way suggest people need to have surveyed all the texts (including the films) before coming to the performance to appreciate what is going on. Ryan’s point I think (and he’ll correct me if I’m wrong), is that his ruminations in performance come exactly from his own experience but reference others along the way – there is a history to this, as well as a politics, a wider conversation – if people wish to pursue it they can but it is not necessary for appreciating the performance in the moment, which necessarily comes from and is driven by Ryan’s own questions about freedom in contemporary consumer society – a central idea of the performance. These questions have to be rediscovered every performance with different audiences.
The point is: he wrote it, in conversation with Peter and the ensemble – the same is true of the monologues of Coralie and Liz. In this way, the work is "original" (Ryan and Peter could offer an interesting argument that in modern society perhaps only conscious copying of copies (remakes) allows for ‘originality’ in a society that is nothing but repetition and replications, etc – karaoke in search of authenticity. But they would articulate this better than I.
I think when we say devised we mean something very different (in practice) compared to say December Brother playing at Downstage. As I understand it, they workshop an idea/story and then it is rewritten by a playwright into a recognizable theatre play form. The two approaches are stark in their differences (and outcomes I suspect) but I’d say that having a look at both would be both informative and interesting for those interested in NZ theatre. So get off your arse (Theatreview readers) and come down to BATS/Downstage.
I’d be keen, John, to hear why you think Distraction Camp is a particularly Christchurch work?


Ryan Reynolds September 3rd, 2010

Thanks so much for coming along, John. It's great that Wellington has such a thriving and interested theatre community.

Ryan Reynolds September 2nd, 2010

I agree with most of what you say here - including and especially that it's the audience response in the moment, regardless of recognising or not any references to or quotes from other works, that matters most. I think I even agree with you that this collage style work is not the best way to emulate someone like Genet. I don't think that's necessarily the aim. I'll ponder that some more.

In any case, our biggest hope with this production was and is to open up discussion.

To that end, we've got a feedback session with the audience, ensemble and director after the show tonight. I for one would really appreciate if you'd take the time to come along to BATS - around 10:30 it'll be - and discuss some of these topics with us and with other audience members. And bring anyone else you think might be interested. To be frank, these discussions don't really happen in Christchurch. And we'd like to make the most of the chance to interact with theatre people here in Wellington.


John Smythe September 2nd, 2010

Thank you for correcting my error, Ryan, now corrected in the review (I had written “long Genetian monologue” then changed it at the last minute). I confess The Balcony is not on my bookshelves and I did not go to a library to check.

I accept there is some originality in Distraction Camp and most certainly agree that pertinent commentary on our own world can draw on works that come from elsewhere (Shakespeare built his career on doing that, in his own original way). But in replicating the opening scenes of The Balcony, recreating the characters and actions and using large tracts of Genet’s text, Distraction Camp does much more than simply take an extant plot, legend or fable and develop a whole new work.

Also apparently much of the tango content comprises re-enactments from three films: Frida (directed by Judy Traymor), The Tango Lesson (Sally Potter), and The Night Porter (Lisa Cavani), all of which I have seen in the past. But rather than get them out on DVD and study them in order to fully appreciate this, I opted for taking the production on its own terms.

Your run down of how what we see on stage evolved is interesting but on the night it is the immediate experience that counts for the audience, especially given Free Theatre’s avowed desire to involve their audience more that they believe happens through more conventional theatre forms (an assertion I would dispute).

It seems to me that if one came to it with a detailed knowledge of Genet – The Balcony in particular – and the tango sequences in the 3 films, not to mention Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game and Dostoevsky's ‘Grand Inquisitor’ story within Brothers Karamazov plus Hamlet, Nietzcshe et al, one’s appreciation would be academic, objective and light-years away from the response the original creators were hoping to elicit from their audiences.

Which gets me back to the original point: to truly honour and emulate the creative people and their works, which you so admire, what now would it take for Free Theatre to draw inspiration from their own world and life experiences and develop their own original forms of expression, without lifting actual characters, text and action from the work of others?

Ryan Reynolds September 2nd, 2010

Thanks for trying to open up some questions, John.

I wish to help answer your question about why we don't, as you say, create original work. In fact, I wish to argue that we do, and in a way that directly addresses our concerns.

Firstly, I'd like to offer a correction: the "long Genet monologue" with self-flagellation was written by me, with inspiration, and perhaps a sentence or two, from Hermann Hesse's Glass Bead Game and Dostoevsky's Grand Inquisitor story within Brothers Karamazov. In the early days of devising this project, in which we decided to investigate themes raised in Genet's Balcony to do with desire and role-play, the actors in the ensemble took turns leading sessions exploring their own interests in relation to the project. One actor made us all go out and sing karaoke. Several explored/demanded ways in which actors could be - or be perceived to be - truthful while performing. For George's session, he gave us a simple task: audition for the show (that didn't yet exist). Everyone had one day to prepare an "audition". His own audition involved performing a monologue from Hamlet that he'd been pondering in relation to the themes of our show-to-be. You'll note that it featured in Distraction Camp.

At the time, I was questioning (following Peter Falkenberg's lead, no doubt) whether we, the current Free Theatre ensemble, were genuinely trying to engage with and/or impact our society - or if we were content to "hide away" doing our own thing. My "audition" took the form of reciting text into the mirror from the Glass Bead Game (in which the protagonist similarly questions his own role in his own institution) while hitting myself with my belt. It was my way of  accusing my colleagues and myself of a crime of dishonesty/disinterest in other people whilst simultaneously punishing and proving myself.

The reason I share this is that I contend that Distraction Camp is absolutely an original work.

In the end, Hesse's actual text wasn't included in my monologue, which I re-wrote in the same vein. But even if my monologue had been 100% Hesse, it was still my genuine and honest response to a theme we chose to explore. Most elements of the show - often quotings from various sources - were similarly offerings that brought some new depth to our exploration of the themes. The tango. The various film scenes we quoted or re-enacted. Comments by Michael Laws. Recent local and national news headlines. Nietzcshe. And so on. These elements sit alongside or within scenes from, or derived from, The Balcony.

You imply, John, that Distraction Camp does not successfully impact the world we seek to confront because it's not an original work. I think that compiling a performance collaged of many elements - including elements of our recent local lives - is not only original but also a more provocative way of exploring this very society: creating a production made up precisely of pieces of this society and relating them to the still relevant themes of someone such as Genet.

(Or rather, I'd question our society's very notion of and desire for originality, which is, historically speaking, quite a new idea. But that's a much longer discussion for another time...)

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“Then what is freedom?”

Review by Whetu Fala 28th Nov 2009

"We are basing the exploration around the theme of unfulfilled (and unfulfillable desire) – a central component in our exploration of the Faust myth – and the physical vocabulary of the Argentine tango……..we are also investigating the themes of "The Balcony"(Jean Genet) as they might seen to translate to our lives here in New Zealand." -Free Theatre 2009

Te Puna o Waiwhetu is the area in which the University Theatre now stands and was known locally as a ‘food bowl, such was the abundance and diversity of food available here. Like its place name, Distraction Camp promises a veritable feast of music, texts, films and images.

Established in 1982, the Free Theatre objectives included the staging of "old and new rarely staged European plays in original translations……in an unusual and experimental style." (Free Theatre notes 2009)

The performance exploration begins before you are even aware of it. A CCTV (Closed circuit television) surveillance camera constantly records the entrance stairwell and door to the theatre. It is not until you enter the theatre that you see the screens that are broadcasting who is entering the theatre door behind you and what they are doing before they enter.

Red velvet, wraps the entire performance area that is dominated by a huge gold and crystal waterfall chandelier and a wall of mirror. The mirror reflects the performance area and the audience seated in front of it. Below is a wooden dance floor on which several pairs of shoes and a cello lie.

Two large bird like cages hang either side of the dance floor, in one are the robes and head-dress of a bishop in the other are a judges wig, chains and manacles. The red velvet drapes extend all the way up both walls of the theatre, enclosing audience and performance area alike. Bouquets festoon the walls and mirrors are also placed on the walls where the audience is seated.

You are at once an observer and the subject of the observation, and it’s like sitting in a red lined chocolate box. You can see the lid opening and closing and are wondering if you will be ‘eaten’ i.e. subject to further close scrutiny or not.

The company, which includes two musicians, enters the performance area and begins in standard black out and the screens are also blank. In unison and to the rhythm of their collective breath, the cast performs a series of floor polishes with velvet cloth, punctuated by a partial yoga stretch. They are joined by the sounds of the cellist and then the piano until all are standing and are circulating in a mass tango.

The company work as one in a seamless flow but as it continues you begin to wonder if you have stumbled into a time before the theatre opened and are in fact witnessing the backstage warm up …

The tango is noted in the helpful theatre programme as a dance that began in the brothels of Argentine. A cursory Internet search spits out the information that the Argentine brothel was one of the few places in which all classes of early 1900s Argentine society met. Musicians were employed to entertain waiting brothel customers and brought with them the latest sounds, and it seems also the latest dances from the Argentine streets.

The company tango is danced with an overall world-weary ennui. The intensity and concentration of the dancers, however, clashes with the tiny dance floor. Body mashes and collisions with walls are inevitable so a series of ‘situations’ flare up and just as quickly are released. 

As the company tango segues into a solo song the work then continues into the exploration of the ‘Balcony’ text by Genet.

World-premiered in 1957 London, this work, like the original text, is set in a world where a riot and coup of the government are imminent outside; ‘safely’ locked inside, we are witness to what we finally work out are the inner workings of a brothel.

Unlike the original, our brothel is set firmly in 2009 Christchurch. The screens blaze into life and send a loop of Christchurch images outside and a stream of CNN like text across the bottom of the screen. A constant flow of infotainment-like updates on the start of the riot brewing around us is ‘broadcast’. It includes references to, but does not name, the Hone Harawira email and also Whanganui Mayor Michael Laws.

On stage, a pedophile bishop leads his child confessor into admitting and then committing sins with him. The power roles are reversed when the madam appears and runs the ‘bishop’ out of the room as time is then up and the ‘child’ is revealed as a working prostitute.

The madam dresses her staff and then brings out a camera operator who is instructed to film "lots of low angles: he likes to look powerful."

The camera close-up of the characters on the screen should have aided to the action of the live ‘wide-shot’ being played out before us. Unfortunately in the 2009 media-crazed world the camera shots were a nuisance as the camera angles presented were not composition perfect, like those readily accessible at any Crusaders game at AMI stadium.  

A man and two women then take us through the politics of crime in a bondage scene involving a judge, a criminal and a dominatrix. The roles are reversed and exchanged so the dominant becomes the submissive and vice versa, until all blurs. Leaving us wondering, like the characters themselves, who has the power?

The third and final scenario is that of the Nazi commandant with his bound, beaten and thonged up woman who becomes his prancing, trotting and ridden horse.  He in turn is brought to heel by a combination of the madam of the establishment and the dreamlike appearance of the embodiment of his Aryan wet dream. A blonde topless Diva in his beloved Nazi outfit singing in the language of the Fatherland overcomes him. Her song becomes her weapon of domination over him.

The camera moves among the now-resigned audience at will, showing them on the screens. No-one (on opening night) even flinches at the camera’s proximity or the reproduction of their images on stage.  

The exploration of power as discussed through this text shows its age. The inherent misogynistic representation of whore, virgin and crone of Genet was in addition exhaustingly nihilistic. Did we need to be dragged through this beautifully staged version of the bowels of our inhumane humanity? Were we the real House of Illusions?

As the commandant is evicted from the brothel and ultimately the theatre, my companion and I just want to leave the theatre with him. The screens flick to outside CCTV. We watch enviously as he leaves and then bolts us in.  

The surprise comes too late for us to care. As the tango resumes on stage and audience members are invited to join in the dance, we leave quickly. Outside the door, remnants of the surprise end litter the steps in a deft touch.

Running at just on 90 minutes it is not the time spent in the theatre that is tiring, rather it is the didactic, repetitive and depressing nature of the source text. This beautifully staged and professionally realized production brings to mind a quote by Nietzsche: "Then what is freedom? It is the will to be responsible to ourselves. "
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