Brighton Festival 2013
Version 1.0 is an Australian company who have been making politically and socially engaged verbatim theatre works for nearly 15 years.
The Disappearances Project is a spacious and elegant work that attempts to unearth an anatomy of absence. Through interviews and a body of research that spans years, Version 1.0 have gathered and curated real stories, giving voice to real people who’s loved ones have gone missing and never returned. Rather than focusing on the missing, the singular focus of this piece is on the experience of those left behind in a kind of suspended animation between loss and hope.
Two figures sit in front of a large screen. The images on the screen are moving but unclear at first, dream like yet familiar, then as the video pulls into focus we realise we are moving through streets in some suburban Australian community at dusk through the night and eventually, the breaking dawn. It could be any street in any town anywhere. The actors tell us fragments of many people’s experiences. They deliver it directly to us, matter of factly, with out theatricality, in the first person. A sonic environment begins to suggest itself, invoking suspension, unease and disquiet, with crackles, loops, bells and dissonance. Paul Prestipino’s sound design underscores and counterpoints and almost converses with the voices of the actors, sometimes surging upwards to almost drown them out with immersive walls of white noise, before falling back again into sublimation.
The presentation is minimal and static, with the actors movements pared right back. Actors Irving Gregory and Yana Taylor are clear, understated and lend a wonderfully selfless humanity to their delivery. The direction is austere, but nuanced. Whilst at first I was concerned this stylistic choice might feel like a constriction, slowly I was drawn in and found it emphasised somehow the sense of hopelessness with out cluttering the already sombre subject matter with sentiment. I found myself grateful for the brief and few moments the actors connected or allowed the telling to break open into more explicit expressions of feeling.
The piece’s form, a spacious unfolding in three acts, of real-life strategies, hopes, un-endings, struggles for information, understanding and meaning in the daily existence of the living, asks the question, how do we grieve for something that may not even be lost?
‘We cant move house’ says one character, ‘If she comes back, how will she know where to find us?’
The stories invoke the shapes of the missing people in us, but just as they begin to unfurl in our imaginations, they morph into the shape of another, a different person, a fresh loss, a separate, yet similar absence. Unable to properly grieve, these people are caught in an unending eddying of possible and impossible futures, bureaucratic red tape, police reticence and social isolation.
At the beginning of the piece we imagine scouring the suburban streets in the video for evidence of the missing one. They feel full of possible life: maybe around the next corner, or the next. By the end, the streets are just passing us by, we have stopped looking, they are just empty streets in desolate towns that represent only absence and all of the unanswerable questions.
As my friend and I walked out into the night afterwards, we spoke about a recently deceased friend and how having a burial had helped unblock something in us that had previously been churned up and unquiet…How unbearable it must be to lose someone close and never have that closure. To never have that opportunity to say goodbye. The Disappearances Project is a spare and beautifully resonant piece of theatre, who’s impact is stealthy but profound.