The Nightgardener

Visy Theatre (Chapel of Change)


Rainsford and his Chapel of Change group have brought to Brisbane a fascinating piece of theatre, quite unlike anything I’ve seen before. Yet it suffers from obscurity and self-indulgence, so that its promise is never quite realised.

The unnamed characters depict a fantasy world on and around a salt lake at the centre of which is the mystical Nightgardener. His tears at the sorrows of the world have created the lake and provide resources for surrounding villages.

The action of the play is for the most part his dream, as weird apparitions and fantasies evolve and disintegrate around him. Much of the dreaming is highly erotic, such that the theatre’s warnings about “adult themes and nudity” are appropriate.

Playing the Nightgardener is Rainsford, while Mary Salem is the central female character. Others (the program doesn’t give any help in telling us who plays what) are Rima Hadchiti, Fernando Mira, Daniel Mounsey and Karina Doughty). They all do well. Among the players is a female midget, whose initial appearance provokes astonishment when she is taken to be a child, given the sexualised context.

The players move and swirl around the stage, surrounded by their audience. There are prolonged and dizzying moments of spinning in circles and different kinds of rudimentary dances. The performers cluster and separate, engaging in weird games, fights and couplings. One extended sequence involves a heart-shaped contraption, first taken to be a boat, which becomes a female orgasm machine complete with dildoes large and larger.

Visually, the show is remarkable, with kaleidoscopic patterns played out on the shimmering salt plains and on the garments and sheets of the whirling characters. A rotating tent-like structure upstage brings glimpses of beautiful and exotic women.

The most remarkable aspect of the production is the use of sound, with audience provided with headphones through which we hear Nick Stamatiou’s eery soundscape including waves and the flapping of birds’ wings. We hear the actors breathing through their neck mikes. For the limited sequences of dialogue the performers whisper their lines, giving the uncanny impression we are hearing their thoughts. At times, however, the words are difficult to pick up.

A narration at the beginning of the production sets the scene. Yet this tells us no more than is published in the program a strange tale of the gardener and his dream, the dying pelican and its falling feathers. The subsequent action is left to the audience to interpret.

While a challenge, this becomes the show’s weakness. It is clear that the production is highly allegorical, with mythological, middle-Eastern and Christian themes. But making sense of it all, over the two hours running time without a break, is difficult. A little more narrative help is needed. In addition, much of the spoken text is rather banal.

Possibly Rainsford and his team aren’t so much interested in the audience taking away a rational understanding, as in having an original theatrical experience. In this they succeed very well.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Tue 9th December 2003)