Reviewed: Box the pony, Scott Rankin and Leah Purcell, Hodder Headline Australia (1999).
I missed the production of Box the pony when it toured to Perth in March for this year’s festival. This was surprising and disappointing as I’ve seen most of the other performance works that might be boldly placed alongside this one in a spirit of excitement, which share some common elements. Instead of seeing Leah Purcell make this performance, I have it only on the page, supplemented by photographs and other contextual tools. More of that mix later.
But to begin with, this book got me thinking about particular waves of cultural activity and production: too grand usually to call them schools, and besides, they are more ephemeral than that. This category performance allows me to consider different forms of artistic expression because of the way it incorporates so many, is so catholic in its approach. Thinking broadly, ranging wide: of the febrile landscapes of songs in that period after punk, the early 1980s; songs particularly from Perth and Brisbane, the Triffids and the Go-Betweens as just two well-documented and much loved examples of people making more of the potential of pop music.
Or combinations of text and sound and what could come out of this, and now I am thinking of both the last decade and this one, of groups such as Machine for Making Sense, the work of collectives such as Evos in Perth, visits to Australia and performances by Robert Ashley, the work of Keith Gallasch and Virginia Baxter, the musicality of their texts. Nothing new that hasn’t been done at some time before, but these mixes offer opportunities to stretch expression and establish good partnerships across artforms that often remain sequestered in the purity of their own discipline.
And now, into this decade and the preponderance of one-person performance works that are often set up to look like one thing—like an unmediated autobiographical presentation—and then are found to be very different constructions. Like this one: a work that actively plays with a number of modes of presentation; of genre, too. Autobiography, fictionalised autobiography, stand-up comedy, political documentary with musical interludes. This is my story: this is how I got to this place tonight. But then a self-conscious dropping of the construction takes place to show the construction. All right, I had better declare the works I am thinking of that operate in this way aside from Box the pony. Ningali, The seven stages of grieving, The geography of haunted places, and Tiger country are some of them. In each case written and devised by more than one person, but performed by one of of them in a direct first-person presentation that is at some point undercut, revealed as a fiction in a way that may or may not convince an audience that the material is not as authentic as it was at first received. Or the other way around, so that the audience comes to a recognition that what they may be reading as artifice has another quality. Lovely paradoxes contained here about fiction and the real.
It is a playful working of literary and theatrical forms: all of these performances rely upon a sophisticated text, a charismatic performer, and the use of some type of theatrical device involving set or scenery or props. In Ningali, it is through metaphor: the stage is a drawn map of Ningali’s face and she traverses the contours of her own face in her life-so-far In Box the pony, it is the use of clothes taken from three big green garbage bags that differentiate the multiple characters played by one performer and other props including cow hides, which are used to mark out other figures. Racks are then used to hang the clothes in the space, for company, for a filling out, a ghostly disembodiment.
There are many similarities between Box the pony and Ningali. The beginnings in isolated Australian communities, the entry into city life, the ordeals and hardships and joy of being young, gifted, black and female, and the recognition of what is to be celebrated in the cultures each knows and engages in. Both of them written in what I like to think of as an instance of productive reconciliation: white and black co-writers and devisers, an interesting push-and-pull between life and story, the weaving of the autobiographical into a space somewhere between theatrical tradition and performance. Both shows have been hugely successful and appealed to audiences beyond those who frequent contemporary performance spaces (as well as including that sector), and bringing people back into theatre spaces they have been scared away from by some of the moribund Australian work produced this decade. This lively work is such an advance, despite the economic necessity that shaped some decisions to make ‘intimate’ shows in some theatre companies.
Box the pony is, along with the others I mentioned earlier, a witnessing story; a sharp politics mixed with anecdote and moments of grace, involved with family community, love. Utterly current and concerned with Australia today, with contestations of meaning and intention, and where racist simplicities are being boldly asserted and old myths trotted out for a nice pony ride. The writers don’t avoid the big issues of violence and self-hatred and fear of difference; they modulate them through gentle humour and a stand-up version of comedy. I particularly like the following:
So where you from and who your mob? You’re not Murri, not Koori, Nyoongar, Nunga, Palawa … Woollahra. That explains it.
The audience is caught every time Purcell addresses them in the crossfire of racism: to look or not to look, of belonging or being outside. It is hardly confrontational, but it is certainly provocative comedy. A delicious space of sub-textual understanding, of a code, or even encoded, humour that circles around ritual and daily living, oppression, and connections of familial love and friendship. To be local again, they are the ripples you hear and feel in a performance of any Jack Davis play or Jimmy Chi, or the work of the Yirra Yaakin Noongar Theatre, black and white audience members watching black theatre. Putting in the public sphere these everyday codes, a humour built on play and survival and self-deprecation, what is known by heart.
Box the pony, then, is a life story of a family It tackles so-called tough subjects such as domestic violence, alcohol abuse and the oblivion it offers, and, generally disenfranchisement. It also relies upon a range of symbolic attachments and the power invested in them that makes them, literally, life-savers. The baggage that is inheritance is explored and is also subverted, turned into an asset. The work relies upon a small repertoire of these symbols and manages skilfully to wind them through the sixteen scenes. The grandfather’s pony is the predominant one, caught up with care and freedom and other spirited life, as well as with brutality and punishment. Another is expression: language and communication and how we tell our stories.
How does the text stand to a person who was never part of Leah Purcell’s live audience? The cues and the contextualising are generous; the photographs extremely important and thankfully good and animated. The publisher has gone overboard with a range of testimonials and other information. There are forewords by festival directors Robyn Archer and Sue Nattrass, notes to the play and crisis support information. This is all supplementary to the text and therefore fairly benign, but the notes to the play by Robyn Shehan-Bright concerned me a little. Why are they there? Is the intention to have the book taken up as a secondary school text? Why do secondary school students have to read notes that flatten all the life out of the writing, that seem to create formulas? I agree that notes might assist some readers with the nuances here, particularly of the humour, but they must also be written with a respect for the writing.
The notes by the two writers and by the director are useful in setting a context for the work and how it was made. It was compiled by Rankin writing and Purcell talking all day over twenty-four days. Perhaps that is a key to the liveliness of this script, and that of Ningali, co-written around lots of talk by Ningali Lawford, Angela Chaplin and Robyn Archer; that it is animated before it begins to be rehearsed. It also has to do, I know, with the wonderfully charismatic and direct performance of Purcell and Lawford, who both own these auto-stories and simultaneously build them with staged characters.
It’s an audacious work, this one; it looks good in publication: a funky looking book and an entirely current performance still on the circuit, and only two years old. That Wimmins business program of solo plays at the Olympics Festival of the Dreaming in 1997 certainly honed in on some remarkable performances by young, audacious Aborigines. Deborah Cheetham, Deborah Mailman and Ningali Lawford were some of them. And Leah Purcell, at the start of the life of Box the pony.