A ‘whelping box’ is a place of nurture, keeping puppies safely contained during birth and early life. It’s designed to be secure and protected, cosy and warm. But ‘whelping’, the word, feels menacing: words like ‘whip’ and ‘welt’ and ‘yelp’ come to mind. Indeed, Whelping Box – created by Branch Nebula’s Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters with Matt Prest and Clare Britton – is no cuddly puppy-basket. Contained, yes, but unrestrained: visceral, compelling, mythic and wild.
Whelping Box’s four creators began devising the work in 2010, referring to a now-discarded piece of crime reportage involving presa canarios –fighting dogs from the Canary Islands. What stuck in their minds, long after the crime story was left behind, was an interest in self-mythologising, social conditioning, power and powerlessness, says Co-Creator Matt Prest – along with the trope of ‘fighting dogs’.
In the show’s large ‘whelping box’, with the audience lining the walls, Prest and Co-Creator Lee Wilson test each other’s limits with physical feats and confrontations, dangerous games and blind rituals. For Prest, their interaction is less about conflict than freedom: “personal and social freedom, and what it means to truly allow yourself to be how you want to be.”
“There was also a real desire to be physical, and to use tasks and actions to create a performance experience for an audience that was immediate and dynamic,” says Prest. “On later reflection, I think my experience of fatherhood and playing with my son and thinking of boys/men playing has something to do with it too.”
While Whelping Box is a series of physical and psychological tasks performed by two men, the artists aren’t interested in masculinity per se, says Prest. “We’re more interested in where we can push each other, and how we can implicate the audience in what is happening through their proximity.”
At times that proximity involves heavy objects flung about in the dark, including the bodies of the performers themselves flying viciously at one another, restrained only by the harnesses that keep their taped-up heads from slamming together.
“While at times it feels like a fight, we aren’t in competition,” Prest says. “Sometimes one is forcing the other to places of physical pain and testing trust, but it’s all about helping each other to get somewhere; a bit like in sports training, perhaps, or acts of initiation.”
For Lee Wilson, “Part of the experience is the physical responses the performers undergo: endurance, deprivation of the senses, and pleasure, for example. The audience also experience physical responses, like when a shovel is slammed on the ground around a blindfolded, naked-footed performer’s toes, and when we almost smash our heads together… [The audience is] set up to be completely voyeuristic…”
Aggressive, brutal, and at times cruel, Whelping Box has been described by at least one reviewer as ‘scary’. Seated inescapably close to the action, with senses heightened by collaborator Jack Prest’s live mic-ing of the space, there’s no place for the audience to go as the performers play out their contest, goading and teasing. But the show is also playful, naïve and free at times, says Matt Prest.
“It’s physically exhausting, but I think we both enjoy that aspect of it. It’s also totally absurd and ridiculous, some of the things we are doing – which I hope makes it more exhilarating than scary,” he says.
RealTime’s review of Whelping Box’s premiere season (at Sydney’s Performance Space) illuminates another side to the show, referring to its “fantasies of the masculine self” and describing its “idiosyncratic myth-making”. At times the two protagonists take on animistic, god-like personas, anointing one another or twirling like dervishes around the floor.
“I’ve always felt, while making and performing this work, that we are seeking some kind of undefined transcendence,” says Prest, “in both a degenerative direction, moving towards the animal and the savage, and in an aspirational sense – trying to achieve some kind of god-like state. This seeking of something ‘higher’ takes us, towards the end of the piece, into a realm of fantasy and quasi-religious imagery… The more ‘mythological’ sections feel like they come as a result of the more strenuous, physical parts…”
Lee Wilson refers to a kind of ‘self-mythologising’ in ordinary life – in the way people dress, the personas they affect and the actions they put themselves through.
“We are interested in transcending normality, escaping civility, and reacting to a safe existence,” Wilson says, “to become greater and more powerful, like gods.”
The whelping box then, is a place of straining, slamming, patting, prodding, testing, transcending… Of voyeurism and tension, humour and ceremony. Refined and accentuated by the lean, ingenious design and dramaturgical approach of Clare Britton and Mirabelle Wouters, it’s an arena in which both audience and performers find themselves critically proximal, immersed, intimate.
Lee Wilson describes the audience as being in a “heightened state, like us”. Who knows what scenes Whelping Box might give birth to as its half-naked protagonists play and interact? One past audience member apparently stood up and screamed. The energy of aggression, strange confrontations, puppy games? What’s certain is that the whelping box is a place of freedom – desire even – opening up a realm of exploration beyond the social norms and limits. And in its own way, perhaps, nurturing and secure.
Arts House, Meat Market
Wed 4 – Sun 8 Sep 2013