… Penny Edwell reviews a play in The Rocks.
Set in an 1858 sandstone warehouse in The Rocks, this interactive theatrical experience focuses on the inhabitants of a boarding house on the day in 1935 when beloved aviator Charles Kingsford-Smith was pronounced missing. The breaking news of Smithy’s disappearance is woven through the performance but isn’t its central focus. Rather, the event establishes an historical setting in which the drama of more domestic stories can take centre stage. The audience is free to wander through three levels of the old building, absorbing the atmosphere, delving into the secret lives of its inhabitants and bearing witness to their stories.
This suits such a historically atmospheric building, where sandstone and raw wooden beams provide an evocative setting. The floors creak; voices can be heard through the walls. Any added props are suitably restrained. Rather than attempt to recreate in minute detail a 1930s boarding house, the designers have brought together swathes of faded sheets, rolls of pianola music, piles of letters, old shoes and rains of paper planes, which all add to the exploratory, ephemeral experience.
Because each character inhabits a space in the building for their story to play out audience members may miss details or various segments. This does not detract from the experience, instead it adds an element of adventure. It also inspires post-show conversation. Two segments at the beginning and the end where audience members are all present brings any loose ends together and the actors are accomplished improvisers, incorporating audience movement and comments into their performance on the night. In fact all the actors are wonderful. In a poignant nod to the era the cast includes Leofric Kingsford-Smith, the grandnephew of Charles Kingsford-Smith and a seasoned theatre performer.
Creating an immersive experience set in the past comes with the added challenge of convincing an audience that they are stepping back in time when there are so many sensory reminders that they are still in the modern world (particularly in the centre of Sydney). High rises and cruise liners, bars, bands and mobile devices can all interfere with the magic no matter how accurate and faithfully detailed the surroundings may be.
This production ably overcomes this challenge by creating a space where the present and the past exists together via those age-old time travellers: ghosts. The character’s brief but powerful stories unfold like apparitions. It is as though you are walking through someone else’s memories: the bored washerwomen, the disappointed French war bride, the street urchin who idolises ‘Smithy’ and the secretly transvestite policeman, among other past lives. A scene featuring a backyard abortionist had me so riveted I watched it twice. Having the opportunity to move through these old, secret spaces and witness such personal stories confuses the temporal setting and makes you wonder — are they the ghosts or are we?
There is no doubt that The Rocks provides a visceral setting for We are the Ghosts of the Future, where ghost tours proliferate and historic buildings and dark laneways help fire up the imagination but for a story so connected to place there were voices missing: those of the original inhabitants of the Rocks. Including these would have been possible as is shown in Janet Cardiff’s City of Forking Paths which leads you through similar spaces overlaying Indigenous voices onto generations of other inhabitants of The Rocks.
The combination of a historic setting and a well-crafted performance is an evocative way of telling stories from the past. The production team ‘haunts’ The Rocks Discovery Museum in the evening, taking it over after closing and turning the rooms into performance spaces and then restoring them to normality, ready again for the morning visitors.
We are the Ghosts of the Future Tickets now only $15 for last days of the performance (27 and 28 November).
Writers: 7-ON: Donna Abela, Vanessa Bates, Hilary Bell, Noelle Janaczewska, Verity Laughton, Ned Manning, Catherine Zimdahl. Director: Harriet Gillies Production Designer: Hugh O’Connor Composer: Phillip Johnston Lighting Designer: Alex Berlage Producer: Stephen Carnell (Blancmange Productions) Cast: Ali Aitken, Darcy Brown, Emily Eskell, Alicia Gonzalez, Sam Green, Flynn Henry, Robbie King, Leofric Kingsford-Smith, Michael McStay, Celine Oudin, Cody Ross, Eleni Schumacher, Eliza Scott, Donna Sizer, Pierce Wilcox. Musician: Laurence Rosier-Staines Creative Production & Stage Managers: Jadzea Allen, Samuel Lucas Allen Front of House: Courtney Farrow, Tina Brady, Stephen Carnell
Photo: courtesy of Phyllis Photography