The cast of Never Did Me Any Harm | Wharf 1

It seems to be an emerging form, dance theatre, and Force Majeure (superior force) is at the forefront. (Cate) Blanchett and (Andrew) Upton might be old enough to remember Greek drama interpolating plenty of movement in the chorus work, but I’m of more tender years. Seriously though, Sydney Theatre Company’s artistic directors clearly have an affection for the form, one they readily confess, citing indelible performances by the likes of Pina Bausch. Personally, I haven’t had the pleasure, but I have enjoyed the opportunity to sample Force Majeure’s work and have been suitably impressed, as on this occasion.

Call it ‘dance theatre’ if you please, but FM is also big on what I’m disposed to call ‘documentary’ theatre, in which they research a subject, collect and collate vox pops, then reproduce them, verbatim. In this instance, they’ve curated the candid opinions of parents and those who might otherwise be, to document divergent and convergent (but mostly the former, even within couples) views about parenting. They’ve zeroed in on the epidemic of over-parenting which seems to have taken exponential hold in recent years.

 This new work, directed by Kate Champion, is also based on or around Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap. (Yes, television addicts, that one.) Tastily, neither Champion or Tsiolkas is a parent. Neither am I. We non-parents, of course, aren’t allowed to harbour views on parenting, as we’re not qualified. Qualification for parenthood is an honorary degree, bestowed at the birth of one’s first child. It’s a licence to make or break lives, including one’s own. Geoff Cobham’s hyperreal suburban backyard is different to the one to be found up the road apiece, at the Stables, for Strong’s reincarnated production of The Boys. Cobham’s is Kodachrome, imbued with sunny memories; the taint of nostalgia; the deceit of recollection. Shadows are cast, but the vividness remains. There’s no fading the impact of one’s upbringing.

Max Lyandvert has outdone even himself (if that’s possible) with composition and sound design. At times the earth moves, as in Christchurch; the solid foundations of home are rocked; shaken, not stirred. Chris Petridis has designed some stunning projections too: provocative text creeps across the lawn, inhabits bodies; generally haunting and making a nuisance of itself as ideas mindsets and preoccupations will (and do).

With all this behind her, Champion’s off to a flying start and makes the most of it, with a judiciously selected cast of dancers and actors. The first scene plays back an interview with a couple at odds, with the man tending to defer to his partner. This is acted out choreographically: every word, or phrase, becomes a gesture, or movement, a method proving almost as eloquent, if not moreso, than the words themselves. It’s highly original, sophisticated, amusing and effective.

It’s a pleasure to see actors dancing. Not dancing in the sense of So You Think You Can Dance, you understand, or, God forbid, Dancing With The Stars, but in the sense of a structure, rehearsed movement that’s expressive in an entirely different way from the physicality inherent in acting.

It’s captivating also to see them, fully-grown adults, playing children; adopting behaviours and mannerisms we recognise in our younger selves, as much as in children we might’ve observed since. Vincent Crowley and Alan Flower really come to the fore here. In one scene, Crowley is dad, seeking to scold Flower, while his mother protects him and scolds her husband. Later, Crowley is an older brother, secretly cajoling his little brother to don a crash helmet and lie face down on a billycart he crashes into a large pile of objects he spends some time building into an edifice. In yet another scene, at the persistent barking of a neighbourhood dog, Crowley and Flower seem to become dogs themselves. Either that, or they revert to an earlier stage of human evolution. Either way, it’s very entertaining and effected exceptionally well

Some of the monologues, almost like soliloquies, are among the work’s best features. While Marta Dusseldorp sometimes tends to betray the fact she’s acting a little too easily, Heather Mitchell’s performance seeps right into the character, or vice-versa, so one almost ceases to be aware one is watching an actor at all. Both, however, are an aural banquet, with faultless diction and smoky timbres one would wish all telemarketers to possess; if they did, you’d buy whatever they were selling.

Kirstie McCracken, though a fluid dancer, seemed somewhat superfluous but, inasmuch as I could gather, she wove her way through the narrative as a kind of ghostly figment of imagination, a hazy cloud of half-forgotten collective notions about childhood.

Sarah Jane Howard and Joshua Mu’s roles were much more defined, with Howard, preggers for real, showing rumours of immobility in such a state are grossly exaggerated. The two communicate the uncertainty and dissonance of coupledom with profoundly subtle sensibility. Later, Mu plays an autistic son, the stress of coping with which has driven a wedge between his distraught, broken, lonely parents (Mitchell and Flower). Again, immediately recognisable, with the emotional signifiers calibrated almost insurpassably.

In the end, despite a dynamic dramatic landscape (driven as powerfully by superlative production values as anything else), rather than digging deep into the often contaminated soil of the familial, Never Did Me Any Harm emerges as a mere nosepick; a much lighter treatise than one might’ve expected. But an observant and good-natured one, with excellence permeating every aspect of the work.

The details: Never Did Me Any Harm plays STC’s Wharf 1 theatre as part of the Sydney Festival until February 12. Tickets on the STC website.