Sydney Festival: Are we not drawn onward to new erA

Michelle East
17th Jan 2024

If you caught World Without Us (Sydney Festival 2018), you know Belgium’s Ontroerend Goed theatre company seek to challenge. Risk taking theatre can be uncomfortable. Director Alexander Devriendt is ever the provocateur.  In Are we not drawn onward to new erA, he challenges us to confront climate change. Have we gone past the ecological point of no return? If we could undo the damage and start again, would we make the same mistakes? Would the world be better off without us or is there value in living?

It is a challenge to write about this production without being a spoiler. Are we not drawn onward to new erA has been playing the major art festivals globally for several years now. So most of the secrets are pretty much out in the open now, some right there in the promotional material. The title is a palindrome – it reads the same forwards and backwards. Forwards and backwards moves the plot, the actors, the props, and the music. It takes the 19th century existentialist philosopher Kirkegaard truism to a clever extreme. “Life must be lived forwards, but it can only be understood backwards”.  In lesser hands, it could be bombastic.

The play opens to a single tree on stage and a purposeful, too long silence. Setting up an uncomfortable tension. As we come accustomed to the silence, we notice a woman sleeping. She awakes and a man joins her. No dialogue other than a single word each. The man picks the sole apple from the tree and offers it to the woman. The original sin in the garden of Eden, we know it’s all downhill from here. Other people join the stage. We must tame nature, so they pot up the tree, It is man’s nature to destroy, so the tree is violently pulled apart. Man erects a false god. We trash the planet in plastic and noxious fumes. There is very little dialogue and what is there is unintelligible. Is it Flemish? There is movement but it is strange, stylised. If the first 20 minutes is feeling uncomfortably slow, hang in there. Don’t be like the couple of people who left at this point. Perhaps the haze and smoke got to them but I suspect they didn’t have the patience. A shame because they missed the big payoff. Hang in there, do not leave your seat for the full 75 minutes.

Spoiler alert! The curtain closes and one of the women comes forward as narrator. Except she is not making any sense. She is speaking backwards. The penny drops that it has all been backwards to this point. A translucent screen drops down. A video of the first part of the performance plays, this time with the action looking forwards. The creative team and the cast play this conceit with such exacting discipline. The scenographer is Philip Aguirre. The cast for Sydney are Bastiaan Vandendriessche, Charlotte De Bruyne, Jonas Vermeulen, Karolien De Bleser, Kristien De Proost, and Vincent Dunoyer. The light, video, and sound crew led by Jeroen Wuyts and Seppe Brouckaert.

Now looking forward, we have the provocations. Are we willing to dismantle the false gods? How far will we go to reverse the mess we made, how far is enough? Do we need to leave, by suicide or other means for the earth to have a chance? If we still like it here, can we rest? If all this is sounding too serious, there is release. The characters warm up and there are flashes of humour. Are we moving towards our downfall or salvation? It is up to us to decide.

Take note of the music. Spectra Ensemble play an arrangement by Joris Blanckaert of William Bassinski’s Disintegration Loops. Bassinski is a US avant-garde composer who makes field recordings and composes by looping the tapes. He created Disintegration Loops by serendipity while digitising some 20 year old tapes. He noticed that the old tapes deteriorated further each time they passed the tape head. The tapes progressively lost information until they entropy into silence. This piece would only have been of interest to experimental music nerds if he had he not finished Disintegration Loops on the morning of Sept 11, 2001. Bassinski then filmed the aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Centre from his Brooklyn apartment. Disintegration Loops played the following morning as an elegy to the victims. On the 10th anniversary, it played at the memorial service in New York. The composition has been inducted into the National September 11 Memorial Museum. It is one of the most important 21st century ambient music compositions. Melancholic, beautifully played. With its silences, an opportunity to reflect with a hint of hope.

The action ends back at the beginning. It is up to us to act. The audience reacted with a sustained applause. People lingered outside the theatre in discussion. Eavesdropped on divergent views. To provoke us to think and to talk, is that not the aim of good theatre? Director Alexander Devriendt’s mission accomplished.

Sydney Festival presents the Australian Premier of Are we not drawn onward to new erA at Roslyn Packer Theatre, Walsh Bay 16 – 20 January 2024. It continues on to the Perth Festival 21 – 25 February 2024.