Thursday, 15 October 1998

Panacea, Oct 15, 1998

by Arena Theatre
at Old Police Garage Russell Street October 15-November 1, 1998
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Young people are incessantly bombarded with visual input: imagery from film and television, billboards, computer programs or magazines. They catch life in sound bites or TV grabs.

If this forms their primary experience, there is logic in presenting young audiences with performance in the style of a music video.

In its AnthoPop trilogy, Arena Theatre, under the artistic direction of Rosemary Myers, has developed a hybrid theatrical form combining video, computer graphics, amplified music, miked voices and fragmented narrative. It is steeped in popular culture that cocks a snoot at traditional forms of narrative and characterisation. It has taken them on a tour to North America with Autopsy.

Panacea, part of the Melbourne Festival, is the most successful of the trilogy. Devised by Myers with Bruce Gladwin and written by Julie-Anne O'Brien and David Carlin it extrapolates on a true story.

Axel, an 11-year old East German, is training to swim for the 1974 Moscow Olympics but his performance is enhanced with steroid treatment which enlarges his heart and causes his subsequent drowning.

This play, of all three, has some emotional impact. Axel (Brandon Burns), a sweet, naive child, is a pawn of the Communist state. His mother (Nadja Kostich) is the most affecting character. Her desire for a better life, a house provided by the state and success for her son, finally cost her his life.

The accompanying video design (Daniel Crooks & Pete Circuitt) is vivid, rapid fire and evocative. It provides not only moving imagery but also a kind of stage set. Its large screens divide the space and provide levels for the cavernous Russell Street Police Garage. Lighting by Ben Cobham again completes the visual spectacle.

Other narrative threads are woven into the basic tale. Petra, (Genevieve Morris) once a child swimmer, is now a drug-addled adult. Shelley, (Fiona Todd) now an Australian sporting fashion icon, is wracked with resentment about her loss in the 74 Olympics.

The over-simplified plot allows confusing (unintentional?) connections between performance-enhancing drugs and recreational drug abuse, between lesbianism and steroid use. It also relentlessly represents East Germany as the bogie man in the sporting arena.

The politics of this play become questionable. A simplistic portrayal of any of these issues is dangerous. Let's not value style over content to the detriment of clarity.
 By Kate Herbert

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