Carriageworks, Sydney
January 6, 2018

There are many impressive elements in Force Majeure’s latest dance theatre production You Animal, You, which is having its world premiere as part of Sydney Festival. But although it is extremely well staged and performed, the themes that it purports to be exploring don’t come clearly into focus.

You Animal, YouGhenoa Gela, Lauren Langlois, Heather Mitchell, Raghav Handa and Harrison Elliott in You Animal, You. Photo © Prudence Upton

With a text by the Company’s Artistic Director Danielle Micich and actor Heather Mitchell, written in collaboration with the other performers and with Sarah Goodes as dramaturg, pre-publicity has suggested that You Animal, You interrogates what makes us human in a desensitised age, and presents personal stories to explore our repressed animal selves, particularly that most primal of human senses, smell.

An introductory note in the theatre flyer/programme says: “Part game, part voyeuristic exercise, the work examines how we often deny the driving primal senses within us, forcing them into a place of shame.” Despite some intriguing, beautifully performed monologues by each of the performers, and some stunning physicality, that really doesn’t come across.

You Animal, YouHarrison Elliott with Raghav Handa. Photo © Brett Boardman

Directed by Micich and designed by Michael Hankin, You Animal, You is staged in Bay 20 at Carriageworks with the audience sitting in two rows in a ring around the huge performance space. The lighting by Damien Cooper and music by Kelly Ryall add considerably to the powerful staging and atmosphere.

When we enter, one of the performers (Lauren Langlois) is rolling and tossing in an enormous, partly inflated piece of plastic at one end of the room. As the other performers appear, it’s clear that Heather Mitchell’s character – a kind of crazed, manipulative, bitter Miss Haversham-like figure in a grubby corset and torn sequinned dress – rules the roost.

You Animal, YouHeather Mitchell and Ghenoa Gela. Photo © Brett Boardman

The production unfolds in a game-like environment where Mitchell’s character goads and forces the others to competing in a dystopian “game” or fight, recalling gladiators or The Hunger Games perhaps, complete with a towering umpire’s chair on which Mitchell oversees proceedings and explosions of ticker tape. There’s a lovely moment at the start of the production, when the performers make their way around the performance space bouncing on their toes like boxers or football players doing warm-up exercises.

The production features five distinctively different performers: Mitchell, who is known primarily as a straight actor, along with Langlois, Harrison Elliott, Ghenoa Gela and Raghav Handa, who all have experience as dancers. They all give compelling, at times touching performances, each with their own distinctive physicality and personal style of monologue, but it never really all comes together in a coherent piece. What the work is trying to say isn’t clear beyond the obvious that life can be a battle with the survival of the fittest, and that for all our differences we’re pretty much the same underneath, with similar struggles.

You Animal, YouHarrison Elliott. Photo © Prudence Upton

Nonetheless You Animal, You keeps you intrigued, and there is a stunning sequence towards the end when, as Mitchell’s character tells her story, Elliott performs inside the now blown-up plastic inflatable. Moving it down the performance space as he flips and rolls inside it, he then bursts from it naked to slip, slide and struggle along the stage in a puddle of water like a dying fish. Capturing both birth and death at the one time, it’s mesmerising, and superbly performed. An unforgettable moment.

Though conflict, cruelty, pain and loss have been the order of the day, the piece ends on a hopeful note and we leave the theatre having been taken on an intriguing journey, though not entirely clear what the piece was saying. Still, it’s worth seeing.

You Animal, You plays at Carriageworks until January 8 as part of the Sydney Festival.