by Urszula Dawkins
Long before the word ‘upcycle’ found its way into hipster conversation, The Suitcase Royale were cruising the backstreets, hirsute and with a ute, collecting trash to incorporate into shows with titles like The Ballad of Backbone Joe, Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon, and now, ZOMBATLAND. Along the way they coined the term ‘junkyard theatre’ – a reference both to the origin of their props and the grungy potency of their shows, which include everything from swampy, grinding music to puppetry and projection.
Junkyard theatre, says company member Joseph O’Farrell, is about giving life to objects that seemingly have no further use. “We are really fond of the idea of the Australian garage and the Australian tinkerer, and making odd inventions,” he says. “And in a more conceptual sense, junkyard theatre is a term that we created and now is used all over the world.”
The Suitcase Royale place a lot of trust in junk: when I ask O’Farrell what comes first – the concept for a show or the junk, he doesn’t hesitate:
“Mostly the junk,” he says. “We start off in a room that is just a black, small space, and slowly over our development period that space becomes full of just junk and clutter and light bulbs… and we just start to experiment with all the different objects in space.”
He does admit that Zombatland had more specific origins, though.
“We saw an story that was written about Wilson’s Promontory: about families who were going camping and would be attacked in the middle of the night – there’d be a hole through the tent because the wombats were stealing their food.”
“There was a great article in The Age, with a family sitting next to their tent with a big hole ripped through it – we thought ‘that’s pretty funny’, so we kind-of messed with that idea.”
Back in the sixties and seventies, O’Farrell tells me, Australia produced a wave of cheaply-made drive-in movies with horror themes – called ‘Ozploitation’ films. Their themes and haphazard production have inspired The Suitcase Royale, he says.
“[Ozploitation] was kind-of a reckless way of making movies, really cheap, done anywhere. There were some really great movies made in that time – they deal with what we’re obsessed with, which is the small country town. So there were movies like Razorback, which took place in a small mining town; and a movie called The Outback, where a couple go camping in the outback and all of a sudden they’re attacked by the wildlife of Australia. It’s pretty funny! Like, the gum trees start to hit them… It’s pretty wild.”
Apart from their first show, Felix Listens to the World, The Suitcase Royale’s work has all been explicitly set in Australia. O’Farrell attributes this in part to the company’s frequent touring internationally – “we wanted to tour work that had a really unique Australian voice”.
The small Australian country town also provides a kind of ‘instant mythology’ for audiences – a wealth of different associations which The Suitcase Royale are free to play with, challenge or utilise as part of their anarchic, multi-artform shows.
“It’s such a great canvas to build on really, specially for an international audience, and for us as well. If you set something in the middle of the dead heart of Australia, anything’s possible, and we like to play around with that.”
“In the second show we made, Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon, a crazed doctor creates a subterranean vehicle out of dead cows and travels down into the middle of the earth in search of a reservoir. We play around with the conditions a bit as well, like drought, and houses that are made out of junk. It’s a really visually rich texture and I think that’s what fascinates us most really, because it works with our aesthetic so comfortably.”
The musical aesthetic of The Suitcase Royale could be described as a kind of 21st-century rag’n’bone style, bluesy and gravel-voiced, complete with home-made instruments. My first instinct on hearing its thunking bass and twanging banjo is to perhaps assume an American influence, more ‘backwoods’ than ‘outback’; but O’Farrell immediately points me to drovers’ songs and bush ballads:
“The style of music works really well with the shows,” he says, “They were playing banjos and tea-chest double basses in the ports of Sydney and Melbourne too – so yeah, it goes with a time period and that image of the stuff that we’re playing with in our shows.”
The experience of ZOMBATLAND will be “more like a live gig than a theatre show,” says O’Farrell, and the ‘junkyard’ elements are intrinsic to that feeling.
“We’re never interested in a fourth wall being placed on our work [between stage and audience]. We close the doors at the start of the show and we’re all in it together, so it’s all-inclusive – it’s the audience and us. And because we make our sets as well, they’re always falling apart – there’s always this element of danger.”
“So every show will be different – we like the idea of it kind-of being just a party for everyone.”
The Suitcase Royale
Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Wed 14 – Sun 18 Mar 2012
(03) 9322 3713