Raw, innovative and utterly engaging

23 March 2018

Review: Huff by Cliff Cardinal, co-presented by Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and Native Earth Performing Arts ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, March 21 ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Huff is stunning – in both senses of the word.

At the end, we applaud until Cree playwright and solo performer Cliff Cardinal has returned to the stage for his third bow. Thank you, I try to say with my palms; thank you for that extraordinary theatrical experience. Thank you for using your immense skill and talent to shine a light on those who have fallen through the cracks. The audience is then slow to move. Many of us just sit, pressed to our seats by the gravity of all we have witnessed in the past 70 minutes.

Huff, directed by Karin Randoja, is set in the 1980s on a Canadian reserve. Wind and his brothers are caught in a torrent of solvent abuse and struggling to come to terms with their mother’s suicide. Australian audiences will instantly recognise the parallels with issues facing our own First Nations people, in the wake of colonialism, racism, inter-generational poverty and trauma.

Our introduction to Wind is truly shocking. A freezer bag covers his face, secured by tape around his neck; his hands are taped behind his back. As he gasps for air, the plastic clings to the contours of his face. This is a suicide attempt, he tells us. Another horrifying minute passes while he describes what is happening to the air and to his brain.

A member of the audience literally saves his life.

Finally able to breathe, Wind explains events leading up to that point. He begins his story before his conception, when his mother’s beauty “pulled the air out of an Indian’s lungs”. But the young couple’s difficult life “on the res” is soon tarnished by alcohol and violence. Wind is the middle of three brothers – the eldest, Charlie, is a sadist affected by Foetal Alcohol Syndrome; the youngest, Huff, is a sweet soul destroyed by his appalling circumstances.

Cardinal plays all these roles, along with that of Wind’s patronising schoolteacher, his wise yet worn-out grandmother, his baffled stepmother and the stoned DJ of Shit Creek Radio (“For those who are up shit creek without a paddle … The weather will be warm and weird today.”) It is easy to believe there’s a full cast on stage, such is Cardinal’s skill at portraying and switching between these diverse characters.

The dysfunction and despair of Wind’s world, the loss of innocence and depravity is heartbreaking. “Is that your sacred gift from Creator?” his little brother asks, as Wind siphons petrol from his teacher’s car.

In a motel room they’ve broken into through a hole in the roof, Wind “huffs” the petrol. “Gas tastes like metal, but also like being scared – like someone screaming in your face,” he tells us. He narrates the brief hallucinations that follow in the style of a TV games show host, before puking on his hoodie. That huffing is a relief speaks volumes about their intolerable, suffocating life.

Sydney - January 22, 2017: A scene from Huff, showing at the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
The ensuing scene, in which Wind washes himself with crushed tomatoes, is a comic delight. Yet  darkness soon returns. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

Somehow, this dark story is frequently injected with humour and playfulness. Cardinal plays a skunk who often threatens Wind, then eventually sprays him. The ensuing scene, in which Wind washes himself with crushed tomatoes, is a comic delight. Yet darkness soon returns. As he stands ever closer to the audience, his red-soaked arms, neck and shirt are more akin to murderous violence.

The simple set, designed by Jackie Chau, is comprised mainly of a chair, milk crate and beer bottles. It is used in clever, original and startling ways, helping Cardinal give a voice to outsiders and often unspoken taboos.

To me, this is theatre at its best – raw, innovative and utterly engaging. It is theatre you experience with your gut as well as your brain; theatre that does not just offer a window into another world but throws a brick through that window, inviting us to reach out a hand.

Huff plays Subiaco Arts Centre until March 24.

Top: It is easy to believe there’s a full cast on stage, such is Cardinal’s skill at portraying and switching between these diverse characters. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

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Author —
Xan Ashbury

Xan Ashbury is a teacher who spent a decade writing for newspapers and magazines in Australia and the UK. She won the Shorelines Writing for Performance Prize in 2014-17. Her favourite piece of playground equipment is the flying fox.

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