Urszula Dawkins spoke with My Darling Patricia’s Halcyon Macleod about Africa.
“Image is as strong as narrative…the power of an image is to leave an element untethered, floating,” says writer and director Halycon Macleod. As an original member of My Darling Patricia, she knows this well. The company, founded in 2003 by four women with predominantly visual arts backgrounds, has forged an impressive reputation for highly image-based, other-worldly works that explore the darker side of Australian suburbia. Its unique mix of visual and physical theatre has drawn audiences into the disturbing cocktail party of Politely Savage, the ethereal backyard of Night Garden, and most recently, the conflicted childhood world of Africa.
Africa is not set inAfrica: like My Darling Patricia’s previous work, it’s firmly rooted in the sprawling belt of gridded streets where most who were born inAustralia grew up. Places to feel safe behind the latched front gate, or places to escape from – where for every footy game on the front lawn there’s an argument happening behind wound-tight windows. Places where safety and mediocrity share an uneasy double bed, with secrets gathering dust in boxes underneath.
Late in 2008, as My Darling Patricia began researching for a new work, stories of child neglect and domestic squalor started to appear in the media – accompanied by sensationalist footage of rotting meat on kitchen floors, piles of filthy rubbish, and children huddling together for warmth. Halcyon Macleod remembers images of front yards strewn with broken, sun-bleached plastic toys. “These houses waist-deep in rubbish seemed like a space from which to speak,” she says.
“We were caught by pictures of children leaving these houses, shielding themselves from the photographers with coloured blankets, like multi-coloured ghosts. And we wondered, if you were six years old, what fantasy you could tell yourself in the privacy of the space underneath that blanket.”
And then another news story came up – about two German children, aged six and five, who decided to elope to Africa, taking with them a seven-year old sibling as ‘witness’. The three packed their bags and headed into central Hanoveron a tram, and got as far as the airport train before being discovered. This was the answer for My Darling Patricia: the idea for Africa was born.
Africa represented a significant shift in direction for My Darling Patricia. Its story of a steadily-worsening domestic situation, offset by the children’s escalating fantasy of escape, coincided, says Macleod, with a conscious desire for the company to work within a more narrative structure than previously.
“Up until that time the works we’d made had been really more about creating atmosphere, and exploring those more abstract, more multilayered and multitextural kinds of worlds and forms. With Africa we really wanted to concentrate on telling a story in a fairly linear way – but still really led by image.”
Puppets, and in particular the “alchemy and brilliance” of collaborator Bryony Anderson, have been a feature of previous MDPworks – but in Africa, they take centre stage for the first time, playing the characters of the three children amid the piles of toys, clothes and debris that make up their floor-level world. They seem to add an unnameable magic to the story, evoking an almost-primal response – which fits curiously, and aptly, withMDP’s ‘suburban surreal’ aesthetic.
Macleod agrees that there is something special about puppets: “Watching a puppet, you concentrate so intently on this really small object and what it’s doing. And you’re always outside of realism…it allows you to let go of something, intellectually, and to just go with it, and I think it’s to do with that intense focus, that intense concentration.”
Sound designer Declan Kelly has further ‘animated’ the set for Africa, bringing the toy-strewn domestic landscape to life with the sounds of the children’s world.
“There are millions of kids’ toys that make sounds that drive parents crazy,” says Macleod. “They say various things and make different beeping and bleeping sounds; and so Declan sampled a lot of those sounds and used them as part of his palette, to colour his compositions within the work.”
The desire to make everyday objects and actions strange and unfamiliar is at the core of My Darling Patricia’s work, and their influences range from film to literature, photography to theatre-making, as well as the visual arts. Individual members of the company have worked with visual theatre masters Chiara Guidi (of Societàs Raffaelo Sanzio) and Philippe Genty, and Danish children’s theatre company Gruppe 38, as well as observing Robert Lepage at La Ceserne inQuebec.
But outer suburbia remains the greatest influence for My Darling Patricia: “We associate [the suburbs] with this very bland and family-led culture that really is pitched at mediocrity, and which seems like it’s really boring. But actually it just means that you kind of suppress the surreal and the fantastical…the things that are bigger and grander than the little picket fence and cul-de-sac and the perfect two storey house allows.”
“So in a way [suburbia] fuels that kind of fantastical world… it’s just not on the surface. But the fantasy and richness and the magic are all still there.”