The cast of Buried City | Belvoir St Theatre

We’re talking grunge. Think building site. Scaffolding. That’s the urban aesthetic that pervades Raimondo Cortese’s Buried City; the title alluding to the buried, if not completely dead, emotional states of the people, all lost, who hang out in this no man’s land. A ground zero of psychic devastation.

It’s late at night, when the ghosts of sublimation may roam more freely, especially after the effects of legal and illegal drugs take hold. There is excavation taking place here, as the characters good-naturedly spar, betraying a strange bond and affection they harbour for each other. Even amidst the filth and the rats, a sense of community, camaraderie,  mutual (if sometimes begrudging) respect and shared feeling become evident, despite the disparate lives, backgrounds, experiences and outlooks of the members of this ‘instant family, just add crisis’.

It was Alicia Talbot’s concept, apparently, that inspired and effectively commissioned Cortese’s script. Which, on paper, looks rather as though it’s been rushed into publication without even adequate proofreading. Fortunately,the fact that Talbot’s idea underlies and underpins the work seems to have afforded her an unusual amount of poetic licence, insofar as adaptation to suit the voices of the actors she’s cast. Talbot, of course, is resident director, among other things, of show producers Urban Theatre Projects. It’s fair to say UTP positions itself, very successfully, at the cutting-edge of Australian theatre and this work leaves no real room for doubt about it.

And what a cast. Not just because, individually, these actors have so much to offer, but also as an unusually cohesive and complementary ensemble. In a sense, they play themselves, adopting their real names, or versions of them, and ethnic identities. It’s a captivating decision, blurring the lines between parts of themselves and parts of their characters and almost inevitably intermingling the two. I’d like to see more of it elsewhere, not just because it’s a bold and compelling theatrical experiment but because, in a sense, it makes the actor’s job at once easier and more difficult. It’s bound to make for more authenticity, but defining one’s character and keeping it separate from oneself, drawing boundaries, lines in the sand, becomes a complex challenge. While I’ve no interest in seeing actors suffer as a result, it’s all the more edifying for the audience.

So, who are they? As Val, Valerie Berry, a Filipina-born Australian actor of some distinction (having featured in The Matrix: Reloaded, as well as being something of a veteran of text-based theatre, until throwing herself headlong into co-devising, as in this case), is the weakest link. Which isn’t to say her performance is poor, just that it wavers and, sometimes, she seems to lose momentum and self-belief. As a consequence, so did I. Nonetheless, when she’s good, she’s pretty good. Her character’s back story is perhaps the least distinguished: we can only but guess as to why she’s on a desolate building site, late at night. She seems to be something of a promiscuous barfly, out of sync with society, a misfit, like her cohorts. Hence she momentarily finds a semblance of the familial here. She at least succeeds in transcending both the demure and ruthless stereotypes of expat Filipino women, by being a creature unto herself.

Perry Keyes is Perry, a lazy security guard, resigned to his lot in life, philosophical (but nonetheless troubled and concealing anger, bubbling, only just, beneath a quiet surface), whiling away the hours drinking, talking idle nonsense masquerading as pocketbook wisdom and paying a teenager for oral sex. He’s strangely likable and, despite his creator being more singer-songwriter than actor, surprisingly credible.

His likability is demonstrated by Russ’ (Kiefel’s) affection for him. Russ is, in many ways, the polar opposite of Perry, still railing against the man, the worker’s worker, a hardcore socialist, still applauding Jack Mundy and the BLF’s heroic stand for The Rocks in the ’70s. His world is ending, but he won’t have it. Perry, by contrast, has already rolled over, benignly letting the digital now leave its dark mark all over his poetic soul. Russ harbours old-school prejudices, but is working hard to overcome them. His would-be, head-in-the-clouds son-in-law, Haz(em) Shammas, currently estranged from his daughter, becomes a focus for Russ’ angst. He taunts and tests his mettle.

The again, he does this to everyone. He’s smart and dudded by dint of his generation: working class boys didn’t finish high school back then; they dutifully became the next gen of working classmates. He’s taken a wife, had kids, provided well. Now, between swigs of Glenfiddich, no less, he ponders, ‘is this all there is?!’, knowing full well it is.

The beautiful Effie Nkrumah presides over the site office, sitting alone with Australia’s Got Talent on TV, dreaming of a better future; young and optimistic, proudly African, while knowing, or hoping, she has more opportunity as an emigre. She knows a different kind of blackness to Meynedog (Wyatt), who shows the relativity of racism in teasing, in a feeble attempt to provoke her about the supposed valueless continent that is Africa. She won’t bite. She knows he’s harmless and merely trying to engender her attention and affection. Who would’ve thought vilification could be sweet? “You know why birds don’t fly over Africa? Coz they’re not worth shitting on.”

Wyatt again shows himself to be one of the hottest properties in theatre. His star is rising fast. And no wonder. His is a stupendous performance: full of intensity and consummate skill. Yes, already. Only a year or so out of NIDA. I’ve no compunction or hesitation in proclaiming him as the next really big thing. Mover over Russ. Geoff. Cate. Everybody. As Meynedog, he’s a listless, dope-smoking, frustrated, unemployed Aboriginal  teenager, every bit as clever, savvy and streetwise as, say, Russ, if not moreso. All he needs is a chance, like so many real world teens; not least indigenes. There’s got to be something better than a mouthful of another man’s ejaculate, for a few slower-to-come dollars. (The only reservation I have with this conceit of narrative is it seems intended to shock, but is, in fact, quite banal. Nonetheless, it’s a potent metaphor for the downtreading and dignity-stripping Aboriginal people have endured for well over 200 years.)

Haz(em) Shammas wants money, status and respect, but isn’t quite ready to put in the hard yards. His head is brimming with ideas (others’, mainly), but self-doubt and the wear-and-tear of prejudice is holding him back. He clearly has admiration and (mutual) respect for Russ, but neither is quite ready to show it, upfront, so they succumb to fisticuffs and verbal confrontation, instead of the hugs they want, need and wish they could give. Russ knows estrangement: he didn’t even show up in court in support of his son, who committed a misdemeanour. About the only security he knows is his ‘faith’: a set of avowed political beliefs. Perry: “You believe in God, don’t you, Russell?” Russ: “Course not. I’m a fucking socialist!” The only glue holding Haz’s world together is family, a relationship he also wants with Russ. Russ wants it, too. His outwardly hardline riding of Haz is blokey-bloke, paternal love.

Keyes’ Dylanesque song settings, easily as good as anything, say, Springsteen has ever written, penned especially for the play, feature strongly (a kind of no-cost bonus), although at times seem to interrupt the flow of dialogue and overall momentum; perhaps as much a factor of timing as anything else. Not to worry — you could sit him somewhere off to the side of this set and I’d listen to him all night and buy that as Buried City.

The performances wouldn’t be possible without Talbot’s concept nor, perhaps, nearly as affecting or effective were it not for Mirabelle Wouters set, which emulates a building site so faithfully as to be practically indistinguishable from the real thing. It sets the tone and scene for the work, along with Neil Simpson and Sean Bacon’s deliberately dingy lighting. Not to be underestimated, either, is Kathy Cogill’s movement direction — although I suspect much of it comes naturally to their lithe, fit frames, Meyne(dog) Wyatt’s and Haz Smammas’ athletic, monkey-barflying looks effortless and almost has a musicality to it; Shammas and Russ Kiefel’s fight scene manages to get the heartrate up, while presenting no real danger.

While inarticulateness and social malaise often result in conversations that never really resolve or move on, the great Australian ‘idle’, and about every second word being expletive, it’s arguably overdone here, to the point of tedium. And while the concept and performance is impassioned, Cortese’s script can prove a little too thin and one has the sense it was turned out a little too hastily.

But the aesthetic and those performances, as well as the palpable realities reflected, are enough to carry the day, thanks to the expertise and energy of a truly great (if somewhat variable) cast and crew. Kiefel, Wyatt, Talbot and her production team shine.

“Negative electricity. Air’s full of it. It’s all in New Scientist.” Or so Meynedog informs. That negative electricity’s also in Buried City. But there are quite a few positive ions in the fire, too.

The details: Buried City plays Belvoir St’s Upstairs Theatre until February 5 as part of the Sydney Festival. Tickets on the company website.

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