‘Salve Magister!’ ‘
That’s what we used to say at the beginning of our Latin classes at school – yes I come from last days of Latin being taught and I remember only a couple of phrases, mostly to do agriculture and war. The above translates: ‘Good Morning Sir!’ or – perhaps – ‘Hail Oh Great Teacher!’ And then in reply – ‘Be seated students!’ This could be me talking to you? Though I think our relationship is more mutual.
Or, more likely, theatre as an art form addressing moi – telling me to sit down and listen (and watch). The bulk of the wisdom I have accrued in my life time thus far has come, pretty much in equal portions, from my lived experiences (mostly my mistakes) in all their wonder and glory and the many lessons I have learned from all the arts, but especially theatre. Theatre – due to many many encounters, and because it is the most moralising of art forms. It shows us – at the junction of space and time – what might happen to us if we follow a particular course of action. We are not told, despite there often being many words, so much as shown. The consequences are played out. All the more convincing for being actively demonstrated. We follow this or that course, dear audience member, and this or that is what is going to happen to us if we do! Observe what happens to Hamlet, Hedda Gabler, Willy Loman, The Miser, Thyestes, etc.
Which brings me to A History of Everything – a co-production between the Sydney Theatre Compan and Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed (Feel Estate) – the latter being a marvelous company that has has performed in Sydney before - The Smile off Your Face (Sydney Festival 2009) and Once And For All We Are Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen (STC 2009). I did not see these previous shows, but now I have seen this company at work I can see why audiences have loved what they do – and why the STC has evolved a relationship with them. The cast of this new work, premiering at this Sydney Festival, includes three member of the STC Residents ensemble – namely Cameron Goodall, Zindzi Okenyo and Tahki Saul.
The concept of this show is simple: re-enacting the story of the world – planet earth and its inhabitants – backwards. The script has to change every day because the opening scene begins with news highlights from the last 24 hours. We then recede, first daily, then monthly, then yearly, then leaping vast centuries of time all the way back to the Big Bang! The seven actors do little more than recite single lines outlining key historical events, covering everything from great scientific discoveries, to wars, to natural and unnatural disasters, and smaller but personally significant events, like their birthdays. Also famous quotes also like: ‘I did not have sexual relations with that women…’, etc.
The actors work with a map of the world laid out on the floor, using little signs to signify war zones, colonial rule – with, for example, numerous European flags (a century of so) dotted across Africa. We watch handheld airplanes crashing, at one point, into the Twin Towers. Since we’re going backwards, at some point the car arrives and later disappears again, replaced by the horse. We ultimately stretch back to a time before humans existed, and then back further to the first living cells - to a massive Kaboom! A furious bright light marking the beginning of space-time. At one point we even see the various continents being pushed together to form one immense land mass. Remember we are going backwards
The idea of the production is to remind as, in the scheme of things, just how unimportant we humans are. We are a glitch, a random flicker of the universe’s eyelid. And while this science lesson (why I opened with the Latin quotation) is told in a very simple way, the effort to pull this theatrical venture together very likely took a great deal of work. And creative chuzpah. It’s never boring and often funny. Always coy and and light-hearted. And while there is a moral, it remains implicit – we are left to draw our own conclusions.
This version of global history is Eurocentric – privileging Western Europe and it offshoot Australia. But that’s fine – to tell the story from a Chinese or Amazon Indian’s perspective, also, would have been too much. This is a version of history which the majority of this show’s likely audience – in Australia and when it tours – will identify as their own.
What I like about this show is how we stay away, for the most part, from what we normally think of as acting. It is mainly ‘presentation’ and only when it comes to famous quotations are accents deployed. A History of Everything is ideal festival fare. It also happens belongs to suite of productions in SydFest’s 2012 theatre program which, together, have shown just how far we can take theatre as an art form – if we choose to think outside the square. Or beyond our own solar system.