This offering from Alexander Devriendt, Joerl Smet and the Belgian group Ontroerend Goed in collaboration with STC, playing at Wharf 2 was my first outing for the Sydney Festival this year. Don’t expect to see traditional narrative, structure, acting or characters in this devised piece. As the title suggests, this play covers the history of the universe and you’ll be pleased to know that it can all be encapsulated in 100 minutes. It’s about discovering our humanity, in all its forms and what has made us who we are today as well as what have been recurrent themes throughout time. It transcends culture, race, time and space.
Don’t be scared by the warnings in the foyer of nudity. It’s no booby/willy fest. Everything is tastefully in context. The opening monologue of the play gives a beautiful perspective on looking at life and our world backwards and so from the very start you can’t help be intrigued and engaged in the notion of retrospectively exploring our life and creation and thus the crux of the play- a journey through the universe, from now to its beginning.
There were times the fluency of the play slightly stumbled and felt a bit amateurish but it can easily be overlooked as the play is constantly evolving- whatever day you see it, it will have been updated to include the day’s major events, including the cricket score- thank you very much. Also, let’s not forget that many of these performers have English as their second or third language and so hurdles in delivering the play in English must be forgiven. It never affects the essence of the performance in its rhythm and thematic expression and maintains a clear engagement in its relationship with content and audience.
This play has a plethora of facts and events to cover. The mastery in timing and hitting their cues and lines should be applauded. Even the projectionist had a tough time keeping up.
I found the moments that most stayed with me were the well written, thoughtful monologues, the powerful visual imagery created through cast tableaux, the comedic and intelligent use of props, such as the orbs, placards and the fantastic use of the floor map, which serves almost as another cast member in the ensemble, especially in its metamorphosis in the end.
A special mention goes to the lighting and sound design. As the universe devolved, the subtle but evocative use of lights as they dimmed and reflected our own presence in this world was terrific. And the blinding light of the first moments of the creation of the universe was inspired, as were the images of our sun, the planets, and the devolution of life. The rhythm of those moments contrasted cleverly with the frenetic pace of the current world. It does mean that the last 20 minutes feels like it drags but given it is encompassing millions of years in the development of the universe, it makes poignant use of time to express its ideas.
This devised work by Devriendt and cast is a winner for all involved. It’s the sort of play that sits with you and makes you reflect on its ideas and the more you think about it, the more you realise how clever it is, its script (I'd love a copy), its production elements and execution all combine to make a theatrical whole and thoroughly engage their audience. This is the sort of creative approach to telling stories or exploring issues you wish all schools would embrace in teaching curriculum, regardless of the subject. Can you imagine history, biology or physics being taught in this way? Wouldn’t that be something?
One of the things I most enjoy about the Sydney Festival is the chance to see risk in expression of ideas and dramatic forms in a devised and global context and the collaboration of artists and practitioners from across the world in finding a common voice in communicating these issues. This is one of those shows I wish everyone who doubts the importance of theatre in our culture in examining who and what we are would go and see. It will literally change your world. Retrospectively.
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