Review: Anthems & Angels: The Compassion Plays by Hayden Fritzlaff

The term ‘audience participation’ has long laboured under unfair assumptions. I’m thinking about the image of a mortified primary schooler enveloped in a person-sized translucent bubble at a science demo or the cringe-inducing guy who gets up on stage as chum for a stand-up comic.

Through Anthems & Angels: The Compassion Plays, director and performer Zsuzsi Soboslay was able to balance those perceptions with the capability for participatory experiences to innovate. She invited just enough interaction to make us understand that we, the audience, were the subject.

It was clear from the beginning that Anthems & Angels was about transition: transition from one state to another, one place to another. With the doors barred at the start of the performance, the skeletal angel of death (played by Soboslay) confronted us outside the theatre, challenging anyone to question her presence. The proverbial Everyman (CS Carroll) also appeared, calling on us, his virtues, to support him through the deathly trials to come. It was an opening that drew the audience inside the performance, and created a sense of tension while we were beckoned into the theatre in single file.

Anthems & Angels was part of Ainslie and Gorman Arts Centre’s Ralph Indie series, a program designed to support emerging producers looking to circumvent the norm. One of its implicit goals is to utilise the Ralph Wilson Theatre, a large, empty black box, in unconventional ways.

That Anthems & Angels achieved this was evident in scenes of war projected onto two walls and eerie, improvised music coming from a trio in the corner of the room creating an immediate sense of unease. This was compounded by the seating arrangements, set up along the diagonal of the theatre, removing the assurance of sitting down, facing the stage and being still.

The story itself drifted from the sombre to the absurd, feeling less like a distinct narrative and more like a dream sequence of interrelated events. Loosely, it followed the Everyman as he assumed the condition of a refugee. Early on, claustrophobic projections of crashing waves and excellent physical performances from Robin Davidson and Carroll lent the Everyman’s escape along a version of the River Styx a tremendous sense of movement.

Later, the audience was invited to turn in their seats and experience a totally separate environment. With our heads twisted around to see what was happening behind us, we participated in a bizarre language lesson, repeating the phrase ‘this is a spoon’ with absurd hand gestures and exaggerated pronunciation. It was a conscious attempt to place us in the shoes of the refugee, to glimpse how uncomfortable it is to be the alien.

Anthems & Angels pulled its audience through this experience and out the other side, like a slow, dark rollercoaster moving through an intangible maze. It felt made all the more poignant given the revelation just days before that our own government would disallow refugees arriving by boat to ever enter our country.

Anthems & Angels was a bold proposition: a performance experience that combined theatre with improvised music, visual art, song and the responses of its audience. By moving theatre beyond its regular boundaries into a transitory, restless place, it was able to teaches us a little of the importance of compassion, show us a glimpse of the refugee condition. After all, each of us share in this experience. So many of us ultimately come from somewhere else.

Hayden Fritzlaff is a 21 year old writer and musician from Canberra. His work often focused on personal stories and niche areas that aren’t often talked about – things like the experimental/electronic music scene, interdisciplinary arts activities and representation of gender in the local music scene. You can read more of his work here and here.

Photo: Andrew Sikorski



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