Belvoir Downstairs, May 17
Watching Cain and Abel by acclaimed independent Melbourne theatre company The Rabble, the phrase “style over substance” (once leveled at Sydney Theatre Company many years ago) kept popping into my mind.
The performance piece purports to ask what would have happened if it was a daughter of Adam and Eve who murdered her sister in the biblical story rather than Cain murdering his brother Abel?
“What if the first murderer was female? What if the guilt and the grief belonged to women? How would this affect our existence?” writes director Emma Valente in her theatre program notes.
As far as I could discern, the production doesn’t answer any of these questions. And I doubt you’d realise that this was what the theatre-makers were exploring if you didn’t know the name of the piece.
Created by The Rabble’s co-artistic directors Kate Davis and Valente, the production is staged in and around a glass prism (a much-used device of late) resembling a claustrophobic, white hothouse filled with mist. It starts ponderously as two actors (regular Rabble collaborators Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman) move at a snail’s pace, peer through the glass and breath on it. The few lines of dialogue are hard to hear at this point.
Cain (Miltins) then regurgitates red flowers (I think) into the water in a white esky-like box. Abel regurgitates white marbles (or something similar) into said box. Then staring heavenwards, Cain murders Abel in a ritual act of sacrifice.
From there, we witness several acts of violence through the ages: a duel between medieval knights (Valente’s lighting suggests The Crusades perhaps), a more contemporary scene about domestic violence in which Cain repeatedly questions Abel about a black eye, a cheerleaders segment and then, finally, possible salvation when Abel pulls back from committing a discussed murder.
What makes this any different from violence committed by men isn’t clear. None of the scenes are particularly compelling – the domestic violence scenario being the closest the piece comes to flaring into life.
The white setting and costumes, gradually stained red with blood (which runs freely under a sprinkler), inevitably recalls the opening section of post’s Oedipus Schmoedipus at Belvoir in January – only there the violence was much more powerfully and shockingly executed than it is here.
Though the press release promises a work that will be “distinctly feminist in its unpicking of gender and violence”, it’s hard to work out what The Rabble are saying with Cain and Abel.
Though it only runs around an hour, it feels much longer. Since I wasn’t engaged or affected by it, I found myself wondering if the chunk of meat they were hacking at was real, hoping Sassman had plenty of room to breathe when rolled up in a plastic sheet, wondering pedantically how you could ask how different the world would be if women committed the first act of violence without at some point acknowledging that they are the child-bearers (unless the hunk of meat is somehow supposed to represent the womb which I wondered briefly during the medieval duel. Though I think not).
It’s true that some of the visual imagery is striking but what it all means never becomes clear. Instead the production feels abstruse at times and plain silly at others.
In the end all I came back to was a piece where style triumphs over substance.
Cain and Abel runs until June 8. Bookings: www.belvoir.com.au or 02 9699 3444