I first encountered the Black Lung boys in Rubeville, in a Westgarth garage in 2006. As it often happens on the occasion of Fringe, the original venue had to be abandoned soon after the programs went to print, and I could be seen running up Smith St, having just read the handwritten notice on the ex-venue door, trying to get to a completely different suburb in five minutes. And it was worth every drop of sweat and every curse and kick of the tram door. Rubeville, I remember, was a ramble on the pursuit of money and fame. Some of it was obviously improvised, some of it probably wasn't. Most of the time, one just couldn't be sure. Eloise Mignon overdosed, vomited, and stepped out of character to complain about the gender politics behind her one-woman prostitution and drug abuse, surrounded with male heroes. Gareth Davies plotted to steal the Black Lung till and fly out of the country. Dylan Young offered his body to just about everyone in view. It was unpredictable, self-indulgent, plotless, but it was brilliantly written, fizzing with energy, and incredibly funny. It was brilliant theatre.
Having since missed all sorts of small-format Black Lung, including an intriguing-sounding Short + Sweet 10-minuter, 9 of which Davies spends raping Sacha Bryning (I hear), and Pimms in Fringe 2007, due to another venue catastrophe, it's been a relief to find Black Lung stable, intransient, programmed, unable to escape or collapse or disband or disappear, in the Malthouse Tower, presenting a revival of an old work, Avast, and an original sequel/prequel to it, Avast II. And they are still gorgeous, gorgeous boys.
Avast is grand and great. As we enter the Tower, completely transformed into a sort of magic shed of early manhood, all vintage porn magazines, rows upon rows of black umbrellas in the ceiling, graffiti on black walls ('Albert Tucker Mother Fucker'), animal skulls on wood panelling, damp Persian rugs on the ground and dead nannas in the corners, my companion smiles like only girls smile, and exclaims excitedly: “It smells like men!” Music is blaring, semi-naked dirty men with bushranger beards are jumping, dancing, and running through the space, and this chaos will seamlessly turn into theatre. Until it seamlessly turns out of theatre again, it will do the same as always: half of it, you will know, must be improvised, but you'll never be sure which half. Props will collapse, actors will seriously injure one another, bad stories will be told and audience members will try to leave only to get shouted at, and I quote: “Sit the fuck down or I'll punch your girlfriend in the face! That's rude!” (finding out that they were planted in the audience almost broke my heart). Among all this, the flimsiest narrative line emerges: two brothers reunited, for one to kill the other.
Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, the Malthouse-generated prequel/sequel, is a more coherent, more narrative-friendly performance. It has some semblance of plot, and is less of a meta-meander than Avast the First. It explains it, however, serving almost like an annotated commentary on the influences: an array of pop artefacts, from graphic novels (Preacher), films (Kill Bill), to cartoons (the Dragonball series). It is a western informed by the samurai Japan, by the gothic, by dungeons & dragons, a loose theme park of duty, family bounds, heroism, frontier mythology, resilience in the face of natural disasters, sword fights. It is a world devoid of women, where all the conflicts are between friends, fathers and sons. The story, if we should bestow such an honour on the ramble, follows an outlaw coming into the city, dragging an outcast, roped by the neck. The found man, nameless, with a hook instead of one hand, is baptised Diego because no-one can die without a name, and their arrival wrecks havoc upon the township, stirring shit in relationships between fathers, sons, friends (as already mentioned), and God. The narrative shifts left to right, following a logic of something other than plot, and music is employed like Melbourne doesn't get enough of it.
If there is one thing the Avasts are about, it's masculinity, in that primordial sense of strength, impermeable solidity, uncertain aloofness. (It's notable that someone like Christos Tsiolkas, a testosterone writer, an angry man, is an absolute anomaly in Australia although, for example, he would fit easily in the US literary mainstream. There is something repressive in the Australian story-telling, sense-making tradition that blocks not only femininity, but also unbridled masculinity.) All the usual problems of manhood and self-definition are present: from father-son and brotherly relationships, the insecure male sexuality, to the confusion of idols, roles and role models. It brings in boys icons from samurai and Nick Cave to superheroes and Son Goku. Deeply appealing images of freaks, gunmen, knights, strange animals, the lone saviour and the lone outsider are inflated, killed and exhumed, just like the God who descends only to be killed with a shotgun. All done with such irreverent, intelligent negligence for simple logic, that a girl spends the evening in giggles.
There is a rich undercurrent of contemporary mythology that Black Lung draws from, in a way that's openly juvenile, semi-certainly subconscious, but well-processed nonetheless. As stage content, it is glutinously over-the-top, indulgently amassing cultural waste on stage, pictures and phrases and postures and punchlines, letting them collide in montages of nonsense. But this is the over-active subconscious of humanity as refracted through the imbecile prism of pop culture. Just like myths are a drone of masses reduced to the most essential trickle of the most incisive images, stories, so is pop culture a choir of human confusion distilled into key dreams and nightmares. To dedicate one's life to trash, thus, may be a bit boring, lacking in variety, but a small dose is an immediate connection to all that's deeply true about life, without the filter of self-aware censorship.
Thomas Henning is an astonishing writer, and these two are, however strangely, solidly spoken-word pieces, although language is never more than another sign system to be blown up. The dialogue effortlessly shifts register from haute to pulp to slang, wrapping itself into knots of delightful hilarity. Dylan will attack the town preacher, “I'm thinking I might cut you down, like you cut me down and let me outside to rot!”, while the latter will defend himself fiercely: “Not to die, though. Not to die.”, while Johnno, who has changed into a woman midway through Welshman, leads a playful, seductive dialogue with Gareth by asking: “Have you ever killed a dragon?”, to which he deadpans: “Yep.” It goes off on tangents, from attachment to dead mother, dead father, brotherly rivalry, transgender conversation (Sacha Bryning does a feminist stand-up routine, but with an entirely male body language and intonation). Yet the verbosity is paired up with the most exquisite visual sense. A 1930s panama gentleman, a procession of strange animals behind a brotherly conversation, gay jokes, stadium rock, all is raised and dropped onto the text, onto the audience, with such diamond-sharp cohesive logic, that against all odds it feels like a journey, not a train crash.
One of the main qualities of Black Lung is the overwhelming freshness they bring to the theatre experience. The energy with which these guys (particularly Gareth Davies, the Prince Charming) jump across the stage, perfectly comfortable while hopping from silliness into acting into meta and back conveys a strong sense of understanding, agreement within the group. Whatever physical violence happens on stage is real, not clumsily enacted (as is usual); performers burst into giggles; there is enough unexpected, contextless nudity to make one feel that the performers are simply taking the piss. It's consistently uncertain what's structured, and what isn't, as the language and the imagery are constantly destroyed and renewed, in a way that feels sometimes dictated, sometimes improvised, but always purposeful. I don't remember my last theatre performance after which the performers could be heard shouting in the foyer: “No, he didn't really get hurt! It's called theatre, people!” The early, almost child-like thrill of real people, tangible, touchable, approachable, mortal, in the spotlight in front of you, comes alive again.
Black Lung are probably the most significant young company in Melbourne, if not more widely. Hold on to these tickets, boys and girls, they will be collectables soon. Unless, of course, the whole band disbands in a few years, frustrated by lack of funds, poor audiences, and our newspaper critics. (The audiences, for now, have been good, I should acknowledge. The blogosphere is buzzing. The funds are still not desperately needed. They're young.)
Avast and Avast II – The Welshman Cometh, a Malthouse / Black Lung co-presentation. The Black Lung Theatre Company: Sacha Bryning, Gareth Davies, Thomas Henning, Mark Winter, Thomas Wright, Dylan Young. Sound designer / musician: Liam Barton. Lighting designer: Govin Ruben. Stage manager: Eva Tandy. Malthouse Theatre, 12 November – 6 December 2008.