Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Review: The Fate of Franklin and his Gallant Crew


By Four Larks Theatre.

If there's one thing we've learnt from history, by which I mean the movies, it's this: any group of men stranded in the wild for more than about an hour will inevitably start chowing down on each other as soon as they get peckish. The chances of this are raised greatly if they're sporting beards and/or uniforms, and if they're gourmands they'll remember the lesson imparted by that movie about the soccer team that got stuck in the Andes: Always Start With the Butt-Cheeks. It's gotten to the point where whenever I go camping with buddies I can sense them drawing dotted lines on my chubbier bits and contemplating whether a dijon or honey-mustard dressing will go better with liver. In short, cannibals are the new whatever-people-are-calling-new-these-days.

I'm not giving much away when I reveal that The Fate of Franklin and his Gallant Crew may involve some Soylent Green stuff. This is because the show isn't really about cannibalism but about the ways in which we construct history. In this case, it's the history of mid-nineteenth century explorer and his crew who get stuck trying to find the fabled Northwest Passage that would allow ships to travel through the Arctic above Canada.

The Fate of Franklin doesn't start out that promisingly: for the first fifteen minutes I was wondering what the point of the whole show was. It felt like an unselfconscious pastiche of explorer narratives, ghost stories and junkyard theatre. It seemed excuse for dress-ups: plenty of lovely old furniture and Victorian dresses and a massive band playing quaint ditties. Where other local exponents of the junkyard aesthetic make a point about the aesthetic significance of this style of theatremaking, this appeared closer to a general fetishisation of Old Stuff.

It only slowly becomes apparent that there's a similar point being made here: different parties with vested interests in the telling of Franklin's tale - from his grief-stricken wife back home to Charles Dickens - alter the course of the narrative as it is played out, and conflicting visions of history begin to battle it out in front of us.

It's an ultimately satisfying show. There are some serious flaws - the acting is patchy, for instance, and only Marcel Dorney (also the piece's chief writer) injects the kind of comic irony to the performance that immediately clues us in to the show's more self-reflexive ambitions. There are also a couple of scenes that just don't work, directorially, including a crucial moment in which two scenes play out simultaneously but leave you wondering what the hell is going on. The actors will begin a sentence before focus shifts to the other side of the room and somebody else says something, and by the time you've rubbernecked back to the first scene you've forgotten how that damn sentence began. Well, I did, anyway. I'm a big fan of split focus in theatre but maybe when somebody's dying they deserve at least a few seconds of our undivided attention.

Beyond these complaints, though, this piece's strengths make it well worth catching. Four Larks won two Green Room awards on Monday night, for Best Ensemble and Best Production (Independent), and while I don't know if The Fate of Franklin matches up to their previous work I'd still recommend it. I also think the company would benefit by hooking up with other artists in Melbourne who are charting their way through similar waters and sharing some ideas. There's room to grow here, and it'll be good to watch it occur.

On at a secret location in Northcote (check until 27 March.

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