Telephone transmits a beguiling blend of ideas

1 September 2022

With a touch of performance rock, The Last Great Hunt takes audiences to the galaxy and beyond via the iconic rotary-dial telephone and it’s a dizzying and dazzling ride, says David Zampatti.

Telephone, The Last Great Hunt ·
PICA, 31 August, 2022 ·

Sometimes it’s just as well to sit back and let it all wash over you.

That’s certainly the case with Telephone, The Last Great Hunt’s dazzling son et lumière that, after a long, COVID-enforced gestation, had its premiere at PICA this week.

Thrown into the witch’s brew of ideas and snippets of storyline that The Hunters have concocted is an alien life-form who negotiates Faustian pacts with unwary humans in exchange for relief from tax audits, the power struggles within a high school a capella group, and a grab bag of telemarketers, relationship break-ups and downs. It’s all couched in mass culture from all the days of our lives.

But, in truth, the times when a narrative seems to be emerging creates a distraction from the themes being explored, and the effects upon which that exploration rides.

Telephone is less a story so much as a fugue on the paradox that communication between us has become more problematic as it’s become pervasive and invasive.

The iconic yellow-cream, plastic, rotary dial and touch phones that Telstra put in every home and office may have gone the way of drive-ins and typewriters, but they are the motif Telephone uses to take us to the galaxy and beyond (the show’s entire dialogue is performed through telephone receivers, crackle and all).

A line of four actors, clothed in black, talking on rotary dial phones.
The show’s entire dialogue is performed through telephone receivers, crackle and all. Pictured L-R: Grace Chow, Arielle Gray, Courtney Henri and Tim Watts in ‘Telephone’. Photo: Daniel J Grant

In Telephone, as in life, the world where what you experienced was captured and transmitted in the same physical dimension as it originated – be it the sound of a voice, or an instrument, or the image on a photograph or a film – has been replaced by codes, by technological representations of reality. Our analogue world became digital; our physical experiences replaced by their mathematical representations.

Telephone seeks to unravel this cipher on a stage with a combination of live action, light and sound.

The Hunters – Tim Watts, Arielle Gray and Jeffrey Jay Fowler – continue to hone the precise stagecraft and pointillist characterisation that mark their collective’s remarkable nine-year progress (they don’t rest on their laurels, but it was charming to hear Fowler reprise his eager puppy routine from last year’s Bite the Hand).

They are joined by the exciting emerging actors Grace Chow and Courtney Henri in a memorable and audacious ensemble performance under the direction of Gita Bezard and her assistant Elise Wilson.

Much of its impact is the humour they extract from the text by their sheer precision; dialogue so snappy and tricksy you can’t but help respond to it, even if it’s a mere snippet of a half-heard conversation; movement so cultivated and unpredictable it catches you in your chest like emotion. It’s a great entertainment throughout.

There’s something of performance rock about Telephone. Pictured: Courtney Henri. Photo: Daniel J Grant

There’s something of performance rock about Telephone; it often feels like a segue between songs in a Laurie Anderson or Talking Heads concert. A very good thing.

It’s striking how integral music is to the form and progress of Telephone. It’s a structure anchored by the original compositions of Rachel Claudio in a sound design by Connor Brown that incorporates the internet meme “Sandstorm” by Darude in a sequence with Chris Isaacs’ inspired lighting effects that is so propulsive it drew spontaneous applause from the opening night audience.

The soundscape is punctuated by variations on the theme of “The Girl From Ipanema” that plays on its bowdlerisation as the epitome of lift music, but finally, in an extended slice of the original Brazilian Portuguese version, shows in its bare musical genius and terrible sadness why it is the greatest song of 20th Century pop.

Isaacs, Claudio and Brown’s work dovetails so perfectly together, Bezard and her actors have such command of their technological and physical environment (immaculately designed by Bryan Woltjen), and the slivers of ideas and snatches of the music of the spheres they produce are so beguiling that I was content to float away on it, enjoying the journey, and the sights and sounds along the way rather than anticipating its destination.

Telephone continues at PICA until 10 September 2022. Remaining tickets are scarce.

Pictured top: Grace Chow. Photo: Daniel J Grant

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Author —
David Zampatti

David Zampatti has been a student politician, a band manager, the Freo Dockers’ events guy, a bar owner in California, The West Australian’s theatre critic and lots of other crazy stuff. He goes to every show he’s reviewing with the confident expectation it will be the best thing he’s ever seen.

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