Reflection on sKin

Also published on Laneway.

It always seemed to me that there is a lot that the garden variety bedtime story and the psychological horror genre have in common, in terms of execution. Both strive to lull the listener/viewer into a particular physical state, resorting to the repetition of motifs, avoiding any emphasis on logic, and creating a low murmur of sensations that teases the body into a state of light but constant focus, through a form of mild hypnosis. The only difference is that, while the bedtime story ends on an arbitrary, subjective point, with its audience seduced (put to sleep), the horror narrative is finely tuned to break the spell at the precise point of climax. A typical bedtime story, then, could be a horror tale without the climax.

Humphrey Bower, Jess Ipkendanz and Gwendolina Holmberg-Gilchrist were the team behind the astonishing The Kreutzer Sonata at La Mama last year, the first prose-based performance I saw completely blow its audience away. Novels, short stories and other forms of epic, non-recitatory writing, rarely turn into excellent theatre. The beauty of the theatrical form and the beauty of the written text are too easy to confuse, turning the stage into a declamatory empty space where something other, more real, is merely described.

More often than not, the solid black box becomes a tunnel, and the entire experience tantalising, but unsatisfying. The Kreutzer Sonata, however, with the simplest means of lighting, music, a few puppets and Bower’s hypnotising voice, seduced, terrified and enlightened. Building delicately upon Tolstoy’s superb narrative structure, which in itself combined prose with the discussion of music, all the bedtime-story elements of the Bower-Ipkendanz-Holmberg team fed into the terror of the murder plot, creating an extraordinarily rich melange of visceral effects, finely tuned to hit the body at the most receptive points. What made it rise above mere radio drama on stage was the way it worked on the body.

sKin, based on Bower’s original writing, is not the same calibre of achievement.

It is, as expected, finely crafted: Bower’s enchanting voice gracefully weaves together the mirroring themes of two tales at points of entrance and exit, unease and confusion, helplessness and gratitude. Ipkendanz’s music seamlessly punctuates the emotional songlines, and Holmberg-Gilchrist’s precise lighting fills the small La Mama stage with the Western Australian outback and Thai alleyways, dark hotel rooms and airy condominiums.

As theatre, this is a work of great subtlety. The stories, however, are afflicted with all the usual problems of local literature: passive characters, vague themes, stuttering development of both plot and ideas. It was the strong philosophical outlines, the emotional tempest and psychological fearlessness of The Kreutzer Sonata that made it gripping theatre. In sKin, the joint big themes of place, race, culture, intimacy and identity are reduced to a murmur in the background of an iceberg narrative.

While one man’s hilarious travel to Thailand develops poetically, culminating in his bright orange, made-in-Yarraville tan, its mirror story, another man’s uneasy trip to a town in Western Australia, is replete with visits from the dead, and the appropriately clichéd vague mystery of the land. The emotional curve of the storyline is reduced to descriptions of the landscape. These are understated narratives in which nobody murders, despairs or reaches frightening yet true conclusions about humankind. And Bower’s voice, hypnotic as always, so effective at narrating chilling details of domestic violence, infidelity and existential despair, now risks putting us to sleep.

Understatement in theatre is a dangerous thing. I would not let anyone but this group of people talk literature to me on stage: what they do is masterfully simple, but works mainly due to their talent and, where applicable, choice of works. Without a striking piece of prose to tie the performance, sKin remains just a bedtime tale.