Monday, 19 April 1999

Sleepers, 19 April 1999

 by Garrie Hutchinson
La Mama until April 25, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

There is a horror in hearing spoken, the experiences of victims of war. When we see footage of individual Kosovo refugees speaking of their pain, loss and grief, it touches us in a way no war correspondent's report can.

Sleepers by Garrie Hutchinson is directed and designed by James Clayden. This is a piece of documentary theatre about the World War Two Prisoners of War who were abused by the Japanese.

Documentary theatre is an inadequate description of this work. It is an almost visceral experience of the atrocities visited upon our men in Singapore, Changi, Malaysia and on the Burma railway.

Clayden allows the 'written evidence' of soldiers, including Colonel Weary Dunlop, other Australians and several Japanese, to speak for itself. There is some narration by "The traveller" who represents Hutchinson himself who travelled this route in 1997 and the stage directions are spoken aloud to alienate us even further.

Clayden's production is visually and vocally economical using only a transparent gauze army tent as a set and focussing on voice, slides, film and movement. Images of grave sites, jungle and the death march are projected onto scrim and performers. Bryony Marks’ pulse of sound accompanies the piece.

Performer, Peter Green spends the entire hour inside the tent, referring to notes, reading text, moving gently and quietly inside his mosquito net world that could be his a prison or his army headquarters. Dancer, Shelley Lasica, shifts around the edges of the tent, creating abstract shape that is often simply distracting.

It is Green's almost emotionless delivery that heightens the horror of the images. One soldier decided to be dead during his incarceration; "I would remain dead until the departure of the Japs."

The relationships between prisoners and the Japanese were complex. One Japanese, "feared the prisoner would be killed in my presence." An Australian sees his Japanese interrogator as "a hated intimate."

We are confronted with gruesome details of a beating that left a man broken and blackened after 900 blows, or of men with ulcers infested with insects and no bandages. "I am amazed that one could bleed so much and still be alive," says one soldier. "There is a lot to grumble about," understates another.

We marvel at the capacity of body and mind to continue under such hideous conditions and even to heal and survive. Sleepers is a poignant, moving and chastening experience.

By Kate Herber

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