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REVIEW: Whelping Box | Carriageworks, Sydney

A new dance performance work at Carriageworks’ Performance Space in Sydney was shocking, unsettling theatre — on a gladiatorial scale.

Happily, one can always rely on Carriageworks’ Performance Space to push the envelope, if not lick the seal of an entirely new one. Whelping Box has been forged from a collaboration between Branch Nebula, Jack and Matt Prest and Clare Britton.

Branch Nebula is Lee Wilson and Mirabelle Wouters. Since 1998, when they came together, they’ve worked in all kinds of contexts, with all kinds of people. Their mission? “To create experiences for audiences that are immediate, risky, physical, visceral and challenging.”¬†Whelping Box ticks all the boxes.

Jack Prest is an enigma. Producer. Performer (he’s headlined the Big Day Out). And, here, sound designer. Brother Matt is as much many things to many people, but in this work joins Wilson in an acrobatic dance, for want of a better descriptor.¬†Clare Britton also bridges numerous disciplines, but with WB her focus has been mainly a design one.

A whelping box is a rustic structure designed to provide a safe haven for having puppies, in case you’re contemplating such. The set for Whelping Box is one of these, albeit on a gladiatorial scale. Entering one of Carriageworks large post-industrial spaces (Track 8), we walk into the giant square, which is lined with bench seating all the way ’round. Above us looms a catwalk-like platform. From this point on, often in near darkness, two men go head-to-head, engaging a series of dangerous, devil-may-care contests and rituals that bring to mind man emerging from the primordial slime, the mischievousness and cruelty of childhood, fighting dogs, jamborees, sporting arenas, torture, sadomasochism, bestiality, Christians, lions and crucifixions, homoerotic locker-room antics and other dark expressions of the human psyche. All this, and more, is on show.

If you like World Cup soccer, international cricket, championship wrestling, boxing, fall-of-Rome movies, soft or hard male-on-male porn, or any other form of rocks-off exhibitionism, you’re odds-on to find something that piques your interest in WB. Wilson and Prest taunt and challenge each other, culminating in two naked apes pounding and bounding around the catwalk, testing their own and our boundaries with territorial invasions. In between, there’s much holding of breath, explorations of trust (blindfolded running towards sound), a titanic tug-o’-war and much else.

Even while one player oppresses the other, there are insinuations of humour, though the effect of such isn’t necessarily seen on many faces on the perimeter of the whelping-box. Which really just makes things all the more interesting, because it’s interactive, albeit only in an oblique way; there’s transference of energy which, while not necessarily empirically observable, can almost certainly be felt.

The work is liberating, in one sense, it exercises and exorcises pent-up fantasies, whether they stem from fleeting thoughts or ardent obsessions. For me, it points to our essential nakedness, that we hopelessly obscure with garments, whether of thread, or personae. For you, it’s likely to stimulate other ideas. And, in a whole other sense, it’s a snide commentary of the follies and foibles of human existence and activity and the seriousness with which we, ironically, take ourselves. Along the way, you’re quite liable to be shocked, unsettled and apprehensive.

You might even have puppies.

The details: Whelping Box played Carriageworks’ Performance Space on October 23-27.

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