[A Sign of Things to Come]
When the Auckland Museum launched its online cenotaph, it was a chance for many to discover a part of their family history that had otherwise been a difficult task to undertake. The interest in the Centenary made an easy transition to the stage, with the success of plays such as Once on Chunuk Bair, Sister Anzac, The White Feather Project, and Anzac Eve, where New Zealanders demonstrated a genuine interest in seeing the men and women who fought, lived, and died in World War One brought back to life. Set during a break in fighting between Christmas 1916 and Easter 1917, and focused on a friendship between a Serbian soldier and a Deaf Kiwi sapper, Salonica is the latest stage work to deal with the national legacies of the Great War.
Semiotics is integral to representation in theatre, so the use of Sign Language is by no means foreign to the stage (though under-used and under-represented), however, while “attempt[ing] to explore the theatrical possibility of working in three languages” (English, Serbian, and New Zealand Sign Language), Salonica has reversed the structure of tragedy and missed the mark of its predecessors.
The result is that there are two fundamental problems with Salonica. Firstly, it lacks the necessity of conflict. This story, of the friendship developing between two men from different cultures, has no dramatic drive. Their objectives are to return to their respective homelands, but nothing prevents them from achieving this other than the situation in which they currently are. The only obstacle is time. We see them willingly meet, learn to communicate with each other, and share food, drink, and presents. It’s heartening, but it’s theatrically boring.
Secondly, the physical component to the piece is, quite simply, amateurish. It’s the sort of miming students do at drama school to make fun of miming. It’s clumsy, over the top, and insincere. That’s not to say that devisers Shaun Fahey or Mihailo Ladevac are not committed to their performances, or have moments of genuine pathos, but rather that their passion is never a substitute for professional standards.
Providing theatre for the Deaf community is incredibly important when considering inclusion in the arts, and this production should be supported and encouraged to develop.
That these problems have occurred, despite the involvement of both a dramaturg (Writer’s Guild award-winner Bill Hopkinson), and a director (Laura Haughey, who has been working with Deaf performers for years), suggests a development period of more rigorous testing of the theatrical components would be worthwhile in order for it to have a more resonant affect within the wider theatre community.
There is a story there, and while we may be through with the past, the past isn’t through with us.
Salonica was presented by Equal Voices Arts and played at Q Theatre from the 22 to 24 Feb as part of Auckland Fringe.