A step back in time

11 October 2017

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Review: The Secret Project: Dispatch ◆
Wireless Hill, 7 October ◆
Reviewed by Nina Levy ◆

It’s dusk on an unseasonably chilly Saturday night in Perth, and I’m standing at the top of an old radio mast anchor on Wireless Hill. Beams of light from the setting sun brave the gathering clouds; the river is a steely grey ribbon below. Below, I spot a performer dressed in what might be an early 20th century nurse’s uniform, singing a haunting melody as she drifts about the war memorial. Others meander through the park’s landmarks – a lab-coated scientist here, a bride there – like so many ghosts of the past.

I check my watch, it’s 6pm. Time to head to the meeting point for the start of The Secret Project: Dispatch, directed by Barney O’Hanlon of New York’s SITI Company, and devised and performed by second year Performance Making students from the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts’s Bachelor of Performing Arts.

The Secret Project: Dispatch is a series of vignettes that trace the history of Wireless Hill as a site for communication. Its significance as a landmark for the Whadjuk Noongar people is a framing narrative (delivered engagingly by guest Ian Wilkes), within which we discover stories about communication in the early 20th century, spanning the likes of world war, the establishment of commercial radio and space travel.

The engaging Ian Wilkes. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

Part of the charm of this work lies in its structure, a clever mix of installation and more formal performance. The audience is gathered together at the start and finish of the work, and once in the middle. In between, however, we are free to move between the vignettes (which play on rotation), with a hand-drawn map as a guide. The whole thing is whimsically stitched together by a telegram boy on a bicycle (Courtney Henri) who rides from scene to scene to deliver his missives.

The telegram boy (Courtney Henri) rides from scene to scene to deliver his missives. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography. 

Then there are the sites, utilised in delightfully innovative ways. Letters about life in early-twentieth century Perth are brought to life by three performers (Jordan Valentini, Madeleine Mckeown and Chloë Jean Vincent) from a tree bough that becomes a desk, a jetty, even a surprise elephant. The concrete radio mast anchor becomes a dimly lit bunker for a female telegraphist who works while nursing a baby, perhaps taking the job of a man who has gone to war. The images of soldiers emblazoned on the plinths of the war memorial, interspersed amongst dancing couples, are poignant reminders of lost lives.

Chloë Jean Vincent, Jordan Valentini and Madeleine Mckeown at the ‘Story Tree’. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography. 

Touches of humour are scattered amongst these fragments of the past, a favourite being the stories of communication/miscommunication told by three performers perched atop concrete pillars (Marshall Stay, Christopher Moro and Zachary Sheridan), whose words and gestures form a comical choreography. An interaction with the aforementioned lab-coated characters, involving kookaburra imitations to be sent into space, is another.

Marshall Stay, Christopher Moro and Zachary Sheridan performing their choreography of words and gestures. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography. 

By Perth standards it is bitingly cold yet the 70 minutes of the performance pass swiftly, a testament to both O’Hanlon’s direction and the students’ creative content. The only issue is that I don’t have quite enough time to see all the vignettes before we are summoned away. I catch only a glimpse of the enticing work of “The Botanists”, who are surrounded by hanging glass orbs and interesting-looking plants and flasks. Another scenario finishes as I approach, before I can form a first impression.

The enticing work of “The Botanists”. Photo: Stephen Heath Photography

While a few elements of the production could benefit from more rehearsal – group singing/dancing is not always in key/time – the students are to be congratulated on both their creation and delivery of the work. The richness of detail in The Secret Project: Dispatch makes for a moving, entertaining and informative step back in time.

This photo and top photo: Stephen Heath Photography. 

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Author —
Nina Levy

Nina Levy has worked as an arts writer and critic since 2007. She co-founded Seesaw and has been co-editing the platform since it went live in August 2017. As a freelancer she has written extensively for The West Australian and Dance Australia magazine, co-editing the latter from 2016 to 2019. Nina loves the swings because they take her closer to the sky.

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