It could be the future of theatre. Truly democratic and socialistic. Woodcourt Art Theatre popped-up out of the blue and into the suburban lounge room of a share house (and, supposedly, former nunnery) in Marrickville, in which curator and producer Mark Rogers dwells. Spoils is the first production in the July to September season encompassing seven.

The “lo-fi, independent” space for small audiences opened around a month ago but re:group performance collective is the first company to present work there. Spoils was conceived, co-written and directed by Carly Young; the other writers being the performers (Jackson Davis, Alexandra Francis, Ryan McGoldrick and Claire Stjepanovic). Young and Davis were also responsible for set design, which consists primarily of plastic shower curtains affixed as drapes to the lounge room window and a claw bath. Together with another trio of “emerging performance graduates”, they comprise re:group, a Wollongong-based collective that’s been specialising in site-specific, experimental theatre for two or three years. This was its Sydney debut.

Spoils purports to be a work about the domestic, suburban and surreal. It certainly seems to tick all those boxes. Of course, in practice one could argue there’s little, if anything, to separate those descriptors, which can be coincidental. Louis is a part-time artist. Meg is his coach. Finn cleans Dawn’s wings, when she’s unsettled. There’s a nothing worse than an angel with ruffled feathers, right? When we first encounter them, we find Louis in the tub. By and by, we find each of them submerged in their own thoughts, feelings and fears. It’s a powerful, graphic metaphor for both a sea of troubles, like the one from which we originally emerged, as fish, and a homely kind of solitary confinement. The bath, too, is a laboratory for the development of ideas. Perhaps that’s where Spoils began to take the rather fluidic form it has.

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The work is structured as a series of vignettes in which we get to see and hear the inner workings of these people: their fragile relationships and holds on reality. Meg seems exhausted with lending Louis the encouragement she probably could use herself. Is she living his life for him? And why is Finn whiling away his life in the worshipful service of Dawn, who he sees as an angel? There are many strange, yet compelling conversations (I say conversations, but they’re often more like internal monologues), such as Finn’s rant about whether superheroes are people, or toys, and the judiciary’s deliberations on the matter.

Spoils is “written from rehearsal improvisations and conversations” and it kind of shows. Young says describes it as “a warped reflection of reality, set in a bathtub”. She argues the case for the venue, too: ‘placing it in a loungeroom really amplifies the eccentricity of the piece’. This seems to be perspicacious. There’s a dullness to the action that’s redolent of the domestic, suburban, everyday mundanity. That mundanity that’s, at once, comfortable, comforting and claustrophobic. A mundanity that can lead to frustration, breakout, freakout, shutdown, shut-off or murder-suicide. People bathing. Planning to go out for milkshakes. (Wow!) Going out for milkshakes. People sitting and not talking. Smoking. Waiting for something to happen. While knowing nothing out of the usual is likely to. People bathing. Playing dress ups.

It’s not quite so suburban for grown people — housemates, acquaintances and friends, say — to share so much bathwater together. Or is it? To be brutal about it, look at the incidence of incest in the Illawarra, where the company comes from, for example. And, in a sense, we’re all in the same dirty bathwater together. Having conversations and other types of exchanges that, on any objective level, viewed from space, are probably surreal. Our words, and worlds, are, at once, infinitesimal and infinite.

Spoils‘ spoils are to be found, though, not so much in the words themselves, but the atmosphere: there’s an envelope of intimacy; a sense of shared purpose and genuine compassion that transcends any crossed words the characters may have. It’s gently, deceptively, oddly uplifting. As we sat on our milk crate bleachers, there was an unusual bond between audience and performers that was warm and deeply human. It wasn’t just the red wine. It was as if, in plunging into that bathtub, we’d rediscovered our humble beginnings together. Never before has so much nudity seemed so natural, or normal. All the conditioned guilt and taboos that have accumulated since Adam and Eve were tragically shamed into donning fig leaves seemed to vanish, along with the garments.

WAT and re:group performance collective are onto something here. They’ve discovered something fresh and new. That isn’t to say everyone will like or enjoy it. Or that there isn’t room for considerable refinement. But, all things carefully considered, including remarkably effective lighting and sound design, Spoils is well worth you moseying out to Marrickville.

The details: Spoils plays the Woodcourt Art Theatre until July 12. Tickets on the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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