By Alison Croggon
24.05.2012 / theatrenotes.blogspot.com
It's difficult to think of a greater contrast to Hayloft than the work of the German company Rimini Protokoll, who premiered here with their work 100% Melbourne. Although the artists themselves are dubious about the appellation, the three brains behind the company - Helgard Haug, Stefan Kaegi and Daniel Wetzel - are considered the leading producers of so-called "reality theatre". They made their reputation creating works of theatre that explore aspects of contemporary society, using non-professional performers, and often in non-theatrical spaces. I've read a lot about them, but this is the first time I've been able to experience their work.
Rimini Protokoll's work takes its inspiration from the economic relationships that dominate our understanding of society. One of their recent works is, tellingly, a theatricalisation of Karl Marx's Das Kapital. What transforms this into theatre is the eruption of unpredictable, perhaps unmeasurable, human experience into the structures that are usually abstracted under economies or statistics: it is a theatre that seeks to explore and perhaps undo social alienation. 100% Melbourne, for example, is a project that is presently traveling the world - there has been a 100% Berlin, a 100% Vienna and upcoming is 100% London - which creates a portrait of a city through the representation of statistics.
Statistics are usually thought of as dry and alienating, but Rimini Protokoll seek to remind us that they represent actual people, complex social creatures of flesh and blood. 100% Melbourne is a powerful reimagining of the tired trope that theatre should reflect its audience. Here our city is literally being shown to us, through a representative hundred people chosen, through a carefully filtered process, to represent 1 per cent each of our 4.1 million population.
Participants were selected from a chain that began with the first representative - the statistician, Anton Griffith, who worked out the demographic shape of the show - recommending someone he knew. The show begins with each participant introducing him or herself, and it rapidly becomes clear that this process immediately opens out the inner-city, middle class bias that self-selects the arts community: we see all sorts of people from all of Melbourne's suburbs, from babies to the elderly, from Dandenong to Werribee.
After that, the participants begin literally to perform various statistics on the stage: where they are from, their political allegiances, their beliefs, their genders, their ages. These questions are interspersed with random playfulness - "Do you like Vegemite?" - or the unexpectedly personal - "Have you cheated on your partner" - or the self reflective - "Did you lie today?" These are punctuated by short, personal monologues from some of the participants. As the show evolves, you begin to have a movingly complex and often surprising sense of where you live. It's both familiar and unfamiliar, surprising and unsurprising.
The idea and structure of the show is very simple. What makes it compelling is the meticulousness with which this theatre has been visualised and prepared: the performance clearly reflected months of work. Most of the action occurs on a plain round revolve, which is projected simultaneously as an overhead shot backstage. The visual design is constantly inventive, but always plain and clear.
I was totally unprepared for 100% Melbourne's cumulative emotional power: it was often comic, sometimes deeply moving, always interesting, and finally celebratory. The final questions were about death: for all our differences, what we all have in common is that we will die. By the end of the show, this is far from a banal observation: it's profoundly present, in the way that all these breathing bodies are present on stage, in our own presence as audience members. And, in the best and most subversive sense, it was deeply human.