Instructions For An Imaginary Man
Various People @ Old Adelaide Gaol
9:30pm, Sun 11 Mar 2012
There’s a decent-sized group of people milling around the pockets of light surrounding the Adelaide Gaol by the time I wander out there; walking towards the focal point of the crowd, I talked to a few black-and-nametag-wearing staff on the way – is there a programme, I ask? One woman looked flustered: “we’ve run out,” she said, “but you might want to check with her.” She threw her arm in a somewhat ambiguous direction.
I head further towards the door, and politely asked the same of another woman who had one booklet in her hand. She smiled at me, and her eyes sparkled a little, but before she could answer she was tapped on the shoulder by a larger woman, wielding a cane. “Did you find any more?” she snarled.
The staff member turned to face her, and I could see her frame balk. “I could only find one…”
“Well that’s just not good enough,” screeched the woman. “How can it possibly be that difficult? You know how many people are coming; how hard can it be to run off a few more photocopies? It’s not like they’re that detailed anyway; anyone can do that!”
In the middle of the woman’s tirade, I feel a prodding in my chest. The staff member had slipped her sole programme under her arm and poked me with it; I started to say something to her, but she just waved it at me. I took it, whispered “thank you, and good luck” in her ear, and acknowledged her nod and smile with a squeeze of her shoulder. As I walked away, I could still hear the woman with the cane chastising my new friend, making the wrong statements to the wrong person… and, predictably, getting the wrong result. For her, not me.
I hang around the doors to the venue and note the crowd – it’s a very un-Festival-like mix of people, and it almost feels like a bunch of tired hippie stragglers have wandered over from WOMAD, picking up some Writer’s Week aficionados on the way, and hooked up with a hipster crowd. While we wait, a big deal is made of the “found space” in the Gaol; when the doors open, we’re firmly told that the seating was used by actual prisoners, and to not use the benches on the sides of the walls unless we’re physically frail… which meant that the hipster component of the crowd filled those benches first and foremost.
I wind up sitting on an old, thin once-was-mattress on the floor in the second row; as soon as I drop to the ground, I know that it’s going to be a long performance. It’s hard and lumpy and, I suspect, only marginally more comfortable than the concrete floor beneath it; the full house ensures that we’re crammed together such that there’s no easy way to stretch our legs during the performance.
But, given this is a performance attempting to tackle the humanity (or lack thereof) of incarceration, maybe that was a deliberate strategy; to get the audience to, in some small way, feel a level of discomfort and captivity.
That idea is given further weight by the almost interminable opening to the performance; shot after shot of the sole actor, Graeme Rose, holding a pose within his “cell” before the light faded to black. The first couple of instances defined the really clever set design; spanning the width of the cell block hall in which we were seated were two thin meshes, which were appropriately lit to create an impermeable wall, a projection surface, or a transparent screen. Rose’s cell lay between the two meshes, and beyond lay a string quartet, a piano, clarinet, baritone Nigel Cliffe, and mezzo soprano Cheryl Pickering (who also doubles up as the creative producer for the project).
After the solitary pose sequence, the performance becomes almost operatic in nature – the singers perform a series of poems written by prisoners of conscience from around the world, with the musical accompaniment providing staid backing (apart from the final piece, which yielded a stunning piano adventure). Unfortunately, the performance of the poems – and Rose’s mute prisoner enactments – all feel pretty one-note-ish… there’s not a lot of variety in the presentation. It’s almost as if the production team found a sombre tone they liked early on and applied it everywhere.
And, to make matters worse, the combination of Cliffe’s baritone, the violins, and the clarinet echoed off the hard, bright walls of the cell block to wreak havoc with my tinnitus – something I was not expecting, given the superlative acoustics that Chants Des Catacombes managed to eke out of the same building.
Between my ringing ears, numb buttocks, and insufficiently stimulated brain, I couldn’t wait to stand up and move around at the conclusion of Instructions For An Imaginary Man. Whilst some of the poems read were nice, I reckon this would’ve been a far more potent performance if it had been trimmed to a mere… oooh, twenty minutes. But bouquets to Bec Francis for the sterling set design; brickbats to the hipsters who spent half the performance reading the libretto by mobile-phone-light – this prison is too nice for the likes of you.