Review: Mirror’s Edge9 August 2017
L.M. Elliott once said, “Poetry, plays, novels, music, they are the cry of the human spirit trying to understand itself and make sense of our world.” While normally I think it’s incredibly wanky to start any piece of writing off with a quote, let alone a review, I think it really encapsulates the premise behind Kim Ho’s Mirror’s Edge, directed by Petra Kalive.
Right from the second I take my seat in the audience, I’m struck foremost by the stage upon which Mirror’s Edge will be performed. It’s a huge drop-screen projection of stars, with a shallow pool of water bordered by sand at its base. The set really centralises the idea of the lake as the focus of the play: the interaction of the characters with these raw materials creates a somewhat otherworldly composition, in that it feels it’s both partly a piece of a dream and partly a piece of the vast outdoors transported into a darkened room for my entertainment. The changing scenes are depicted through the backdrop’s natural transitions from starry nights to sun-streaked dusks, to misty days, tying down a sense of time which prevents the interaction of different timelines and chronologies from becoming too muddled. The various storylines often play out in canon, with two or three scenes unfolding on stage at the same time. The use of a singular, consistent set, with different props in the foreground, allows this to be done with an incredible deftness which indicates an impressive cooperation between the elements of choreography and set design.
The forethought behind the play is beautiful if not slightly optimistic. It seems idealistic to me to visualise a harmonious melding of cultures on unarguably stolen land, and the play perhaps places too much emphasis on mediative healing rather than reclaiming. When Castor – an Indigenous park ranger played by the ever-brilliant Eden Gonford – must decide whether or not to essentially sell his culture in order for Sea Lake to survive it is, in my opinion, settled far too easily. And while the idea that clashing cultures and ownership claims can be resolved through concerted understanding and a transcendence of time is a rose-tinted reassurance for the future, I found the conclusion of the play much less hopeful. The final act of cleaving to capitalism, a system which ultimately aids the purveyance of colonial oppressions through neoliberalist policies, didn’t warm my heart the way other parts of this play did.
Do we forget, when searching for unity, that the socio-economic state we exist in is one based upon force and dispossession? Jasmin, an Indigenous academic portrayed convincingly by Lucy Holz, speaks of systems of thought and how they shape our realities and understanding of the natural world. For Sea Lake to then only be able to survive through manipulation and commodification is, to me, a dismal message that assimilation rather than resistance and reclaiming is the only way cultures can coexist. Peacefully maybe, but balanced? I’m unconvinced. However, the passionate performances from both Eden Gonford and Lucy Holz as Indigenous activists made up for where I felt the text fell short. In particular, the representation of an First Nation female scientist pioneering a field unaddressed due to the colonisation and white-washing of history and culture was significantly profound.
Overall, however, it is a thoughtful and multi-faceted reflection of our current society, and the moments that have led us to this point. Rachel Shrives not only manages to highlight the casual racism ingrained in modern-day Australia in her role as Leanne, but also humanises her as a product of a post-colonial society rather than an intrinsically prejudiced human being. Her journey from off-handed slurs to the profound realisation of her own deeply embedded chauvinism shows a redemptive arc which works to reveal, ridicule, but not excuse, everyday racism and its effects. In this, we see the harm it causes, but also the blindness with which many wield its sword. Juxtaposed against the institutional racism which Jasmin, Xiaoyu (Jo Chen), and even William Stanbridge (Martin Hoggart) encounter, Leanne is an honest representation of the consequence of this academic and social erasure of Indigenous and non-Western cultures.
Rebecca Poynton is wonderfully angry as the sarcastic Kai. It’s incredibly refreshing to see a non-white character allowed to be reactive to her position in society. So often we see people of colour’s anger represented as irrational and aggressive, but Kai is passionate, indignant, and realistically weary, as she navigates rural Australia. The micro-aggressions which make up a decent proportion of non-European Australian’s experiences with racism are shown to be as emotionally draining as they must be in everyday life: who has time to explain to every person they interact with that their socially ingrained stereotyping of other cultures is actually offensive? In most circumstances, minority persons are forced to interact with those who have been taught that they are “other”. Much like the lake, Kai must work as a bridge between seemingly opposing cultures. Rebecca gives a sincere performance of an individual who is not completely ‘other’, but similarly, is not completely “Australian” in the eyes of her peers.
Another standout performance was Antonia Yip Siew Pin as Lao Ghit, a gold-panning lesbian from the 1800s who falls in love with Irish servant girl, Aoife (Eleanor Young) . It was so touching, for myself personally, to see a historical representation of women-loving-women, when we are so often erased from the mainstream. Not only this, but specifically a couple in an interracial relationship. Particularly striking was how Lao Ghit spoke mostly in her native tongue – which I applaud for both its authenticity and for its protest against an anglicised ideal of Australia. Even though I didn’t understand her words, her physical movements which accompanied them and the emotion in her voice conveyed just as much, if not more, than the actors who spoke english. I felt the pain in her voice when she spoke of her want for children, a family, of living a normal life with the woman she loves. It takes a special kind of actor to be able to translate these sentiments through action and feeling, rather than language. It truly cemented the heartbreak of Aoife and Lao Ghit’s storyline. Their interaction with Castor, when they ask him if it gets better for people like them, hits home in the modern political climate, where LGBTQI+ people – especially those of colour – still face many obstacles in having their relationships and identities recognised.
For all my criticism of its resolution – if that is what we must call it – this play was a respectful and overall well-thought out examination of the intersections between culture, identity, and ownership. It was a radical show – not many plays have such broad representation of marginalised groups – and thus I felt it warranted a more radical ending. However, prominent social issues were considered and related frankly, and the concept of different systems of knowledge was relayed effectively and respectfully, drawing attention and validating an issue which is habitually ignored in favour of praising ‘Western’ technology. A good performance, in my opinion, will project the emotions of the characters and the story onto the audience. I felt Kai’s frustration, Castor’s anger, Leanne’s shame, Lao Ghit’s sadness, Jasmin’s determination. If what L.M. Elliot said is true, and theatre is the expression of the human experience, the exploration of minority identities – whether it be racial, sexual, or gender – is surely a core part of that.