REVIEW: Our Modern Earth (Is A F*cking Mess) (Basement Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

[Our Current Moment]

Intense, explosive and beautiful. Our Modern Earth (Is A F*cking Mess), created by Amber Liberté and performed by an ensemble cast of 13, is another chaos-fuelled response to the climate crisis in the Basement’s main space. A fusion of dance, theatre and art installation, it immediately announces itself as an experimental work. Not least because the experience begins before we’ve even entered the theatre – the cast stagger our entrance, bringing us into the space in small groups, while those waiting can watch on a phone a livestream of the space we’re about to enter. This plunges our nervous systems right into Covid times and hints that this piece will not be limiting its focus solely to the environment but rather, as its title suggests, aims to capture our modern experience as a whole.

The stage is set in long traverse (audience on either side) with a screen at one end, which plays shots of the earth from space as we wait for the show to ‘begin’. We sit underneath netting filled with plastic bottles, as if we are sea creatures submerged in an ocean of everlasting trash. When the lights finally dim, we are greeted with calm before the storm – a sole performer (Rachael Longshaw-Park) threads string through the rafters and dangles it across the space. Then chaos descends, our focus being thrust wildly around. One performer (Madeline Horan) must rush to put on as many clothes as possible, following game-show-esque commands from a voice-over, like ‘you have 15 seconds to eat the rich’. Simultaneously, the rest of the cast walk backwards through the space, phones held aloft, cameras on selfie-mode. They are all on a zoom call, which is being broadcast to us on the screen. It is an extremely creative choice that not only serves as another call-back to Covid, but also highlights just how much of our modern lives are filtered through screens.

Blindness is a motif in this piece, shown in performers literally wearing blindfolds as well as the phones through which the cast see the world. They must navigate the space backwards with only selfie mode to help them, suggesting a focus on the self which creates an obliviousness to one’s surroundings.

This use of technology also makes a potent comment on the tension between our genuine desire for change and how this is often co-opted for social currency. The audience cannot help but laugh as the performers brag about their use of metal straws. Moments later, those same performers are filming anarchic dances with intense fascination, a kind of passive participation in the quest for change, no doubt with the intention of posting on social media. This is just one of the ways we all ‘perform’ our activism.

There is just so much packed into Our Modern Earth’s remarkably short runtime (although the Basement lists it as 60 minutes, it’s more like 30). Aptly, there is a sense throughout the piece of there never being enough time. The performers rush to layer on clothes, fill the space with trash-inspired set pieces (expertly designed by Talia Pua and almost 100% recycled), and respond to commands such as ‘oil’ and ‘fashion’. There is an obvious critique of consumerism in the mounting plastic which slowly encroaches on the space (in addition to the string which continues to zig-zag across it). But beneath this is also an exploration of the frenzied pressure that dominates the lives of individual consumers trying to do their best. One moment we’re asked to consider our fashion purchases, the next to reduce our petrol consumption. Here we see that the capitalist mentality of a kind of zero sum game has infiltrated our lives so deeply that we cannot get away from it even when we actively try. This finally escalates in the performers pushing each other down and piling on top of one another in a visual representation of the rat race that dominates our lives. Meanwhile the voice over sermonizes that it is the system itself that must change – that the responsibility lies with corporations, governments and industries, not individuals.

But, if this is the case, what are we supposed to do? Can we have any hope of creating meaningful change? These are exactly the questions Our Modern Earth is asking in its vivid and visceral reflection of our society. Unlike Heatwave, which played the previous week and focused in on the climate, this piece shows us just how messily interconnected the many problems of our modern existence are. This is displayed visually by the literal intertwining of the string across the space in massive and indecipherable patterns.

So, how do we respond to the problem of climate change in a theatrical setting? Both Heatwave and Our Modern Earth were created out of a need or desire for action. Interestingly, both made use of a traverse stage – Heatwave in short traverse and Our Modern Earth in long. In the case of Heatwave, this seemed to reflect the more insular, community-focused world of the environmental group (Kaitiaki Taonga), with the audience almost surrounding the performance. Given this, I’d be interested to see how being in the round might affect the work – perhaps mirroring the circle of chairs where the activists sit, bringing the audience right into the action. The long traverse in Our Modern Earth is an extremely successful staging choice. It serves to overemphasize the chaos we witness – our heads darting back and forth like a tennis match – and its catwalk-style formation is another nod to the society of the spectacle, with the audience rendered passive arbitrators, just like those viewing everything through their phones.

The two works are very different in many ways, with Heatwave a more traditional theatre show and Our Modern Earth a multi-disciplinary work. Yet there are also plenty of similarities. Both centre on chaos and frenzy, raise questions about the potential futility of action, and end abruptly without providing any easy answers. In this way, both have managed to capture our current moment in time. We stand on the precipice, knowing this is our last chance, wanting to act meaningfully but not sure how. We turn to the steps we know we can take – lobbying governments for incremental change, trying to be eco-friendly in our personal choices. But both works expose what we already know – that this is not enough. That what we really need is an overturning, a radical transformation. The riotous and sometimes violent chaos expressed in both pieces points towards a bubbling-over of our frustrations – that if nothing changes, really changes, the only option left will be anarchy and uprising.

Our Modern Earth (Is A F*cking Mess) plays Basement Theatre 20 to 24 October, 2020. 

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Skykes

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