Thistle Hall, Cnr Cuba & Arthur Streets, Wellington

20/03/2019 - 23/03/2019

NZ Fringe Festival 2019

Production Details

“I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.” – Henry Rollins

SHADOW is about the dance people with mental illness make everyday – the barriers we create using our eyes, fingers, gestures, speeches and silences.

In his debut solo show Liam Whitney pushes the human body trying to find the naked flame of human connection. Blindfolded and restrained behind a wall of screens, a rich journey of shadow-play, magic tricks, physical exhaustion and audience interactions awaits.

A sixty minute saga that will end with actor and audience sitting around a fireplace.

Inspired by the walls of sound created by artists such as Jon Hopkins and Tim Hecker, and the feeling of being okay with it not being okay. 

Directed and Produced by Keegan Bragg (Almost Sober)

Thistle Hall, Cnr Cuba & Arthur Streets, Wellington
Wednesday 20 – Saturday 23 March 2019
General Admission $15.00
Concession $10.00
Fringe Addict $8.00

Theatre , Solo ,

1 hr

A contribution towards “positive societal attitudinal change”

Review by John Smythe 21st Mar 2019

Shadow is riddled with ambiguity which is clearly intentional, given the publicity leads with a quote from Henry Rollins: “I’ll never forget how the depression and loneliness felt good and bad at the same time. Still does.”  

I’d prefer to be able to say itexplores the paradox of depression (in its manic-depression/ bi-polar forms anyway) but the young male figure we observe, mostly in two dimensions, as a back-lit shadow on a long white cloth, is not fully-formed enough to engender such complexity.

In the downstairs foyer of Thistle Hall, the director, Keegan Bragg, has given us the trigger warning (also printed in the programme) about Shadow containing themes and imagery of mental health and suicide. We have then followed a thin red line (representing courage?) to the upstairs space where we have been greeted by a young man (Liam Whitney) who, despite being blindfolded, seems friendly and full of anticipation.

His opening dance with a red file box introduces the first ambiguity. Is he excited or tormented by it? Given our pre-knowledge of the depression theme, does it contain the answer to or the source of his condition; his deliverance or his demons? Later, when he shreds it, is he releasing himself from a burden or destroying his potential? And what does his final gesture with it mean?

Most of the show projects the young man in silhouette on the long white screen. Behaviours and states of being which could relate to his home-alone life, mundane working life and fraught social life are recur, sometimes with variations, sometimes not. Liam’s physicality is impressive to behold – but is this young man dancing out his stresses or adding to them; expelling his demons or being consumed by them?

His hand is something he faces often. Sometimes it’s flat, sometimes it’s relaxed and he feeling romantic towards it, and sometimes it claws menacingly, bearing down on him destructively.

When it’s flat is it his phone (it is invariably accompanied by a ringing sound) and if so, why is he refusing to answer it? Does he know it’s someone he doesn’t want to know? What if it’s someone that needs his help – or is he too self-involved or lacking in self-worth to consider that possibility?

When he is dancing romantically with it, is this a good potential relationship or is he lost in an unrealistic romantic fantasy that will inevitably leave him high and dry – or wet and sticky? His bouts of masturbation seem driven by anxiety rather than erotic feelings.

The menacing claw is clearly his self-doubt tormenting him and its presence is palpable in performance. That much at least is certain. The rest is for us to interpret as we will according to our age, stage, lives-to-date, current circumstances and future hopes and expectations.

As I see it, objectively, this young man is lonely even when in a crowd; he has no sense of purpose, no family, no friends, no relationships of any kind except for the aforementioned romantic fantasy.

The music, provided by Thomas Lambert (i.ryoko) and Madeline Bradley, offers a dynamic soundtrack. The phrases I catch from the occasional songs (and may not have heard with total accuracy) include “Won’t you be my friend”, “I gotta say it’s on my mind/ I gotta do what’s best for me”, “We may find our place in this world”, “I fall in love with you” … As timeless and universal expressions of human needs, they may represent what’s going on in his mind or just happen to be what he’s dancing to. I see it as a blend of both: they are songs that speak to him – and to us, about him.

Other recorded voices also either connect with his feelings or invade his space. The recurring tracks of a couple of men discussing the ‘cuck’ phenomenon (short for cuckold) may or may not indicate he sees himself that way, hence his lack of self-esteem.

A more general indication of what may lie behind the increase in mental health issues comes towards the end of the 50-minute piece, when a voice over compares the life-styles of hunter-gatherers with those of today’s young people. It’s insightful and credible but the actions we’ve been watching do not specifically depict such elements.

Earlier in the show, the young man’s manic dance to a mihi from Sonny-Bill Williams instantly feels like cultural appropriation and even a send-up – and I have to assume that cannot be the intention. So is it that SBW is a ‘mythical hero figure’ he cannot relate to, or who makes him feel inadequate … Not so much ambiguous as puzzling.

The public speaking sound-bites from Mike King, while inevitably taken out of context, may be seen as the bits this young man remembers – but do they haunt or support him? Does he even hear King tell us 20 percent of young males will have a major psychotic episode and 80 percent of them never ask for help, or is that for us to hear while he represents that latter group?

Later (as I hear it), King decries the government expenditure that does nothing to help the most at-risk 20 percent while nothing is spent on educating the 80 percent whose use of judgemental words like ‘coward’ and ‘attention-seeker’ only adds to the problem. He concludes that the cheapest solution would be “positive societal attitudinal change” which leaves me thinking: easy to say, Mike, but how do we achieve that? Shadow may be seen as a contribution towards that.

Despite my puzzlement at the meaning of the young man’s final gesture, there is a distinctly positive mood at the end. And the very existence of this performance work mean its creators have certainly been more gainfully employed and engaged in their world, sported by a full house of peers, than is the young man they’ve depicted. 


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