The beauty of Fringe Festivals is that amongst the wealth of different performances there may be one or even two shows that do more than just ‘speak’ to the audiences – they reverberate with the intensity of a domino effect. The Dummy: Positivity as a Pacifier definitely is one of those must-see shows.
The content explores the individual and societal ramifications of depression, addiction and suicide; not necessarily ground-breaking territory in subject matter but as a mixed media performance it rises above the ranks in ways that are liberating, thankfully non-didactic, and brave.
Olivia Kaleb (Morgan Bradley) is a young woman who is on a downward spiral. Having experienced abuse in multiple forms throughout her life, and very likely continuing well into her adulthood if voicemails from her mother are anything to go by, she is struggling to articulate the utter loneliness that is enveloping, cascading and beginning to crush any and all rationale for living.
She isn’t helped by the swathe of generic and rather futile comments from her Facebook pals, whose superficial but possibly well-meaning virtual responses only intensify her isolation. Even though those who do attempt to reach out and connect are inevitably ignored, shunned and left behind.
Bradley is a brilliant performer. She combines just the right amount of poise, vulnerability, anxiety and strength – yes, strength – to take the audience on a journey through her innermost thoughts. A compulsive pill popper Olivia cannot survive without the little white capsules – they enable her to deal with the barrage of meaningless everyday greetings; to maintain equilibrium when the music in her mind begins to rise to unbearable levels.
It’s a stroke of genius to have the violinist (Grace Lam) on stage playing to, and playing for, Olivia. She is everything an audience wishes to project onto her: an hallucination, a voice in Olivia’s head, an alter-ego; she is both imagined and real, present and invisible, and avoids (narrowly) slipping into cliché. However, there is still room to explore and develop this conceit further because while initially it does appear that Lam is just a violist providing accompanying music, she is a much bigger player in this highly personalised drama.
The production weaves together film sequences, numerous voiceovers, mime and audience involvement – all beneath an interesting skyscape of pacifiers. Admittedly, the extended metaphor of the dummy is bit overdone and Rhys Collier’s broken white feminine sculpture which lights up for a brief second barely get its moment before the scene shifts, which is disappointing, because it is quite stunning. We barely get to marvel at it before it disappears.
One of the most exquisite scenes that does get the time and space it deserves, however, is Olivia’s interaction with ‘Him’ (played by Robert Hartley). Teetering very slightly on the predictable, it is nevertheless beautifully choreographed and executed with a tenderness that is touching. Stripped of layers, it reveals the deeply embedded insecurities and scars that mark an individual, making the final scenes all the more memorable.
Dawn Glover’s writing is evocative and powerful and The Dummy, dotted with various quotes from Slyvia Plath (the renowned American poet and fitting alter-ego for Olivia) is a deeply introspective venture into the endlessly circuitous routes the mind is wont to navigate when experiencing conditions that society is still largely unwilling to talk about freely.
There are various junctures where it feels that the narratives are left incomplete. We never really understand the particulars that have propelled Olivia’s current state and her lack of wanting to respond even to those who have reached out. Is it all just a bit too late?
Narrative aside, Glover’s direction is light and most scenes flow seamlessly. But the space in which the story is set lacks a certain quality of confronting intimacy: the mobiles suspended from the ceiling are poignant but spread across a much larger space than necessary. And although the short glimpses of film (and various Facebook updates) are interesting, they seem disconnected with the narrative which demands something akin to a sense of claustrophobia for us to fully appreciate how fragile and tenuous is Olivia’s hold on life.
The audience participation is potentially an excellent idea but it certainly needs more consideration to make it effective, especially as there may well be individuals in the audience who have experienced various mental illnesses before or indeed find the space more challenging than others. If there is one obvious weakness it is that the work makes a huge effort to aestheticize the narrative and while Lachlan Justice has done a fantastic job with the voiceovers and Facebook comments, the story is already riveting through the combined efforts of Bradley, Hartley and Lam.
The Dummy does not shy away from the reality that many wish to avoid when talking about depression, addiction or suicide. It forces its audience to question that blur between illusion and truth with its remarkable conclusion. A dramatic tribute to life and death and the choices we make, it deserves to be seen by many people this Fringe Festival.
While watching The Dummy I was reminded of another of Plath’s quotes: “Is there no way out of this mind?” Go watch the show and find out.
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