It’s been a long time since I have seen anything like BURIED CITY.

I’ve been walking around in the world – my world – my Sydney world – absorbed, utterly consumed by this production – and I am excited to be the one to say, I got it. I got it, I have it, and it sits in me now, I am forever changed. And for those who have been reading the reviews of Buried City as they slide out of weary festival fingertips, I am here to offer you an alternative reading of this work -so you can see what I see in it.

In the former salt and tomato sauce factory, now known as Belvoir, the Festival punters in their collared shirts and their neat voices mill politely in the glossy foyer. Light catches the crisp white wines as the casual chatter hums in usual pre-show socialising. We wind our way upstairs through the framed posters that now sport the faces of now-celebrities – who, once upon a time worked for parity pay along side the cleaners, the box office staff and the artistic director.

When we enter the space we are confronted with the rib-cage of a construction sight – scaffolding reaching to the heavens – and the light from the outside world (the true world- not an invented backstage/outside world) is dappled through green mesh and chain link fence.

If you look closely you can see figures slumped in the set – sleeping or staring or not. There’s the usual worksite debris – bottles and milk crates – a first aid kit which is rusting on it’s hinges – don’t be fooled – what I’m describing is not merely incidental/accidental moments of decor.

Perry walks in – dinner swings in a plastic bag. He sings a song. Within minutes, Effie, the security guard – occasionally lit in her demountable office by the flickering light of “Australia’s got Talent” – wakes and warns the sleeping Russell. Meynedog taunts Perry. Russell finally wakes. She tries it on with Effie, who is eating an orange. Haz arrives with Val – who they are to each other – what her story is well – it’s anyone’s guess (at first).

And yeah. It doesn’t seem like a lot happens. But in the first few minutes of the show – summarized above – it’s all action. What is astounding about this is what a work like this shows, and conceals and in balancing both aspects what it truly reveals about the audience.

There is a very interesting scene -(if you have a program/script it’s described in 8 italicised sentences on page 20) where Russell and Haz confront each other. Haz – after admitting his love of the gym (for health, not vanity) is challenged to a fight with Russell. There are some moments of contact – a lot of posturing and occasional grappling, some talk, some proviocation, they may grapple a bit – and Haz ends up wrestling Russell into a chair. And Haz walks away. There is silence amongst everyone. A deep pause yawns through the space. Meynedog says flatly “that was terrific guys.”

I laugh. Loudly.

In that 4-5 minute fight scene, I was propelled into a range – a rush- of thoughts –
“Oh come on, just hit him”- “I bet Russell’s going to win this fight” “Yeah, but he’s pretty drunk and old” “yeah but he’s angry”, “but haz goes the the gym” “Does, he really? If he does, why doesn’t he just hit Russell and get it over with?” “Why doesn’t someone on site break them up?” Why doesn’t anyone else SAY something?” “Russell’s going to kill him.” “Haz is going to smash him with a bottle.” “There’s going to be blood.” “Russell’s going to fall over.” “If Haz get’s him on the ground it’s all over.” “Shit this is taking a long time.” “Why is Haz being so chickenshit?” “Why don’t they just hit each other?” “Come on, just hit each other.” “Get it over with – someone hit someone.” “Meynedog should hit one of them.”

And in that moment I heard myself. What? Me? Willing a fight on? Sitting there silently – I was wishing violence. I was confused why they weren’t bashing each other. Why? Because I hold that frustration – that aggression within me? Because I wanted something to happen. BUT IT WAS HAPPENING. I was watching two men challenge each other – challenge themselves. I was pitying Russell and I wanted him to have a victory – equally as much as I wanted him to be floored by Haz.
Strange. A truly confronting realisation.

When I saw Haz walk in with Val I thought – she’s going to want to leave. But she didn’t. She had no where else to go. And she called me on my own assumptions about her – from how she was dressed – what she looks like – and smashed, all my assumptions and prejudice about her – I assumed a beautiful, powerful woman: but really she was lost. Chronically lost.

Perry – the most secure – and yet the biggest self-sabotager there is. Is a gambling addiction a sign of an optimist out of control? Is a a desperate person’s attempt to get rich quick? And what of Russell who presses a $20 note into Meynedog’s hand? And where is Perry in all this? Singing simple songs of sadness?

And there we have Meynedog – a man child – spending time smoking dope – and yet rattling off facts and new ideas from the new scientist – the collide between foul-mouthed child and brilliant, energetic mind. He makes a tower of buckets for a basketball game. He makes a pendulumn out of a milkcrate – he makes his own fun – he amuses himself – he’s no theif, he’s no idiot.

And we have hard-talking Effie – with a huge heart and big dreams and an unwaivering personal philosophy – that is part faith in religion and partly faith in herself.

And we have Russell – exhausted, drunk, disillusioned – and despite what you may have read, the most interesting thing about this character is not the fact he’s a unionist – it’s what he philosophises -“I spend more time buying stuff for my kids, than I do,talking to them – and the stuff I buy just breaks anyway.” Russell is the real deal – the baby-boomer enslaves to a world they created – and crippled by the progress they put in action. He is stuck in what he used to fight for – and without a clear idea of where or what he’s headed.

Haz – a voice of cold fact and truth – that slams into my assumptions. The collision in me mounts. In his speech about migration I am confronted in my own thinking. Though desperately grateful for Australia’s multicultural society and all the benefits that has brought (and for the benefits of globalisation) and slightly fearful of that desperate overseas labourers will undercut an Australian workforce.(terrified of the implications of Fair trade agreements)

And what happen in the play? ALOT. People collide – physically, emotionally, idealistically, philosophically, politically. Things are made and broken. Bottles are shared. Confessions are offered. Questions are asked. Flaws and fractured realities are revealed. Pathways are broken down.
And relationships are sometimes tested, sometimes interrogated, sometimes ignored – strong yet fragile like a spiders web. Each person is trapped in the net buzzing and tangled in someone else’s choices. And for us, the audience – we can see how that web could be broken by a swift swipe of a broom head. And yet no-one does. They are stuck – because of themselves, because of their circumstance, because of their culture, because of their society – and it’s too big to handle.

I read this work, as I read a Beckett – the message of paralysis and inaction is the same. I read this work as a living art installation whereby people kill-time/make things/do things in multiple spaces at the same time. There is a circularity about the lives of these characters – a somewhat stuck/ hopeless/ conveyer belt life – of work, drink, sleep, work, drink, sleep. It is a hell we all know and can fathom – but try desperately to ignore.

In reading this work, I confront my own fears, assumptions, prejudices, perspectives, struggles, philosophies.

What is difficult for some about this production is they may be expecting a different sort of show. Perhaps they are unfamiliar with the work of Urban Theatre Projects? Perhaps they are dramaturgical classicists expecting a single protagonist narrative which shows various obstacles, before a deneoument in which all is revealed/discovered and everyone is transformed.

This is not a show working on that formula. And it’s not a text working on that template.

This show is about offering moments – vignettes of collision – in the hope that the audience is transformed.

A part of me wonders if this work was presented (with the same set – the same characters – the same structure) by a visiting German company, if perhaps the reviewers (and audience) would have reacted differently?

It is interesting to compare and contrast BABEL with BURIED CITY. Both with multi-cultural casts – both dealing with big picture ideas – One is 1 hour 40 minutes, one is 1 hour 20 minutes. One with a glossy aesthetic (the beautiful steel cubes) versus a rugged found object/everyday aesthetic (scaffolding). One addresses the audience directly and is keenly aware of it’s theatricality, the other the performers address each other and they are pursuing a technique of performance which attempts to remove theatricality. One answers questions of spirituality the other raises questions of politics and economics. One is made by international “Star” director, one is made by an urban Australian director and award winning playwright.

And yet the reception has been so different.

Standing ovation in one, walk outs in another.

Both are technically incredible pieces of work – by experienced theatre makers. And yet, I suspect that the mode of performance is a little bit “too much work” (as suggested by Jason Blake in his SMH review you can read here.) – in that it asks the audience to examine their reactions, not just to react to the work as Babel does.

Additionally I think the observation of Diana Simmonds that “The trouble with emulating real life is that real life is very often tedious and aimless, that’s why we have editors, playwrights and prefer to watch a well constructed drama – I’m sure I’ve said this before somewhere, but it remains true. Listening to ordinary people rabbit on about nothing in particular is excruciating. Consequently I spent a good part of the evening in pain.” My response to that is – well, I think being in excruciating pain is very much the point. And I think the pointeless tedium she identifies is also a dramatic convention – Waiting for Godot or Happy Days anyone? And reading Cortese’s script – I think this is a fascinating piece of writing – But as I mentioned before, it does not fit a well-made play, 3-act structure – it fits a structure of storytelling which is more montage/live art/character vignette: and I believe this style of writing to be ABSOLUTELY valid, if not innovative and pushing us to examine how we examine “a new play.” You can read more of her response here.)

I think there are some shows which follow a Festival-friendly format – direct address, large-scale spectacle, internationally celebrated artists, perhaps operates on one level of engagement – beauty and wonder and scale. And let’s not forget, reviewers get fatigued – even Jo Litson from the Telegraph tweeted: JoListon: My week: Babel, Circa, Anatomy of an Afternoon, The Boys, Love Never Dies, The Illusionists, Never Did Me Any Harm, Assembly, I’m Your Man. – we’re all seeing a lot at the moment – and perhaps that can blur reading a work on it’s own terms when we are used to reading a certain type of work especially in certain contexts. But I do think it’s important to help audiences read the work correctly – and with all due respect to all my colleagues in crit -I’m sorry, but Buried City is a true triumph not only of artistic experimentation with form, but a triumph of political and social significance to Australians – Alexander Buzo would be proud.

There are moments which are imperfect – one is when Russell and Effie are speaking on the mezzanine level and we can’t hear them one moment – then the next it’s like the audio has been turned up suddenly – I personally would have been really ok with multiple conversations happening simultaneously for me to dip in and out of. Additionally I think the premise that Haz was there to pick Perry up, and yet he didn’t seem overly focused in pursuing that objective. – and these are minor quibbles.

What the director Alicia Talbot has acheived with Buried City is astonishing – and is amplified twofold when you read the text AFTER you’ve seen the show. You see the performances she has found and nurtured in some stunning performers – who are stunning not because of their skin- but because of their craft.

What the writer, Raimondo Cortese has acheived is impressive – a text which is like a moving musical score – which reaches beyond the confines of traditional script formula – and tries to show something that will stir a second layer in the audience. This is not glib nor didactic. And anyone, ANYONE who travels regularly to Blacktown, Bankstown, Granville on the train will hear this level of language, these voices, these people. And to harness that is so, so, so impressive.

The fact that 20 years ago this same Belvoir audience I suspect would have applauded this brave artistic and cultural experiement – makes me question: what is it we are expecting from our artists? What are we expecting from that venue? This is a major coup for UTP and BELVOIR and I’m so excited for them that they have the balls to present this type of “difficult” work.

And I’ll mention the performers – Effie Nkrumah who I fell for last year in Ama and Chan (and who will one day have her own TV show) warms into her role nicely showing strength and compassion. Perry Keyes has contributed a beautifully transparent performance AND his own songs. Hazem Shammas balances his role with a sturdy mix of bravado and fragility, Valerie Berry smashes all representation of asian women as fragile accounting girls with the type of empowered sexiness and existential questioning that was fascinating. Russell Kiefel is, well, all I can say is that no-one could have broken my heart and roused my fury like he did – this for me was the show I saw him in where I became a fan. And of course, hands up who doesn’t think Meyne Wyatt is magnetically charismatic? He just fills the stage and ever moment with the powerful force of energy that makes me scared and obsessed with whatever he’s doing.

I want you to see this show – and I want you to read it as a piece of installation AND as a piece of philosophical orchestration.

And I suspect, you’ll walk away a different person.