For many city slickers, recent years of climate change and natural disasters have brought the threat of nature right to their doorstep for the first time. Whereas, for rural and isolated communities, the weather and crises like floods and droughts are common disruptions. Unfortunately for this group, though, this dust storm couldn’t have come at a worse time.
Elixir (Kamini Singh) has lived in this little outback town her whole life so she’s used to the flow of people as they pass through town on to other destinations. Her place remains in town as the owner and operator of the only supermarket, pub, and hotel; an empire she hopes to one day pass on to her daughter Jeddi (Lana Filies). Elixir and her old school friend William (Matthias Nudl) used to be a fierce threesome with Kirra (Darlene Proberts) before she moved to the city for good. Now she’s blown back into town as unexpectedly as the dust storm and they’re forced by close proximity, bunkered in the pub, to finally address the circumstances that pushed Kirra away and kept Elixir stuck in town.
The premise of DUST is very familiar for Australian audiences with so many local stories steeped in the small town rhetoric of an outsider stirring up old secrets. Recent examples include the currently airing tv show Savage River while others include Jasper Jones and Mystery Road. In this story, though, as devised by the Milk Crate Theatre Collaborative Artists and the Artistic Team, there’s an added element of the supernatural with the mysterious presence of Two Bob (Desmond Edwards), a man who tells it like it is and who provides the necessary bluntness for the other townsfolk to speak honestly. As the characters navigate their own fears and desires and old wounds, DUST peels back the layers of assumptions that so often stereotype and conceal the individuality of countryfolk.
This approach to storytelling with honesty and vulnerability was reflected in the staging where the majority of the action took place on long thin stages that flanked the audience. As such, the audience were immersed in the world of the pub, plopped in the middle, as the characters walked past and called across the space. The set design by Margot Politis was elegant and sophisticated in its play with texture, movement, and impermanence. The back walls of the two main stages were constructed with various curtains hanging in layers from the ceiling with a mix of fabrics and patterns that immediately recalled the cozy atmosphere of small rural pubs and hotels. Amongst the curtains also dangled picture frames and glass window panes to indicate the practical spaces of Elixir’s pub. Even the furniture was incorporated into exploration of flows, movement, and (super)natural forces as the performers slowly disrupted and displaced the carefully arranged set while hypnotised by Two Bob’s philosophising.
The lighting design by Liam O’Keefe and sound design by Prema Yin worked within the boundary between a rural town’s isolation and the possibility of a supernatural element. Frequently the lights dimmed and flickered with the approaching dust storm but, combined with the haunting and subtle soundscape, there was a sensation of shifting fields and static forces like a vintage sci-fi movie.
Politis’s directorial focus on movement in DUST resisted conventional depictions of small towns as stagnant while also complicating the representation with the characterisation of Singh’s Elixir who clung to her idealised past in order to maintain control over her changing present. Singh was stubborn and snappy in her controlling characterisation, frequently clashing with her equally headstrong daughter Jeddi. Filies played a recognisable teen with an ear for manipulative whining but also a charming naivety as she gazed lovingly at a portrait of David Bowie who she mistook for her unknown father. Proberts and Nudl offered more measured performances alongside the passionate mother and daughter duo but they weren’t without their own emotional resonances, particularly in an introductory incantation from Proberts that echoed throughout the industrial space and amplified the symbolic distance between the two main stages. Edwards’s Two Bob provided the comic relief with his shocking and irreverent humour while also granting the other characters the opportunity to be honest with themselves and each other.
While many elements of DUST are deeply ingrained in the Australian imaginary, the performances and the production design approached the familiar with a delicacy and authenticity that revealed these characters and their hidden emotions as unique and compelling in unexpected ways.
DUST ran at the Richard Wherrett Studio from September 13th – 17th
To help support Night Writes, please consider tipping.