He Dreamed a Train review by Alison Cotes | October 17, 2014
Threnody is a word that’s fallen out of fashion, but there’s no other that sums up so successfully this bitter-sweet lament of a sister for the loss of her beloved brother. A threnody is not quite a dirge or a requiem, but a literary work created to commemorate the dead, to transform ordinary mourning into a work of art, and it can contain a comic element as well. Benjamin Britten called his chamber opera Albert Herring a threnody, and more recently, Bruce Dawe’s poem “Bringing them home” and even Elton John’s lament for Marilyn Monroe, “Candle in the wind”, fit into the category.
As befits the form, this is a short play by Margi Brown Ash, is barely 70 minutes, and yet it seems timeless as we are drawn into a hypnotic world where fantasy and reality are blurred. It begins simply enough. Ash, the darling of Brisbane’s theatrical intelligentsia, enters a relatively messy living room in a house in the country. She’s eating an apple while carrying a shopping trolley and an Esky, and proceeds to make herself a cup of tea using water from the thermos she has brought with her. The room contains an upright piano, a sofa and an armchair strewn with men’s clothes, and on one wall hangs a nondescript painting of a country scene. With that quizzical tolerance that older women often display towards teenagers, she begins a half-hearted attempt to tidy up, and even packs books into cardboard cartons. In comes a half-naked young man – her son, her brother? – who begins to get dressed, while totally ignoring her.
So far, so ordinary. But then things begin to change, and we are projected into another time zone while remaining in the same place. The young man (Travis Ash) leaves through the front door and gradually, as we watch him through the dirty window, fades away into space. The picture on the wall, thanks to the wizard technology of Nathan Sibthorpe and Freddy Komp, comes alive, changing colour and dimension, echoing another landscape that we don’t recognise.
So what’s going on? We learn from the dreamy poetic narrative that the young man is her brother, suffering from a degenerative disease but choosing to live alone in the old family farmhouse, being mocked by teenagers in town when he falls during an epileptic fit and breaks a shop window. The narrative becomes more and more broken, the scene constantly changes, the young man returns to the living room and reverts to the old family game of acting out ancient Greek myths – Travis Ash here gives a mesmerising pyrotechnical version of the Myth of Er, accompanied by audio-visual sound-and-fury that shatters all our expectations. His crashing improvisation on the piano is equally thrilling, as he takes us deeper and deeper into his own strange psyche.
Anything more than that can’t be described. The play was inspired by and is partly based on a book by Brown Ash’s brother David, but we learn nothing about him as a real life character, or whether this is his own true story. The play cannot be interpreted or explained – it has its own momentum, its own logic, its own meaning which the audience is left to accept or reject, because it doesn’t make any concessions to traditional expectations.
It pushes the boundaries, creates a new kind of experience, a multi-media performance in which actors and technicians play with and off each other in a mind-blowing interdependency. Designer/director Benjamin Knapton juggles this kaleidoscope of form and function with firm control, never allowing the possibility of chaos, which is lurking in the background, to take over.
For all its intricacy it’s a tightly disciplined production, with neither actors nor stage effects dominating the other.Margi Brown Ash and Travis Ash, mother and son in real life, work as a perfect team, their off-stage relationship bringing an extra dimension to the idea of this close but non-communicative interaction of sister and brother, while allowing the sound and A/V effects to play their own role. But as Travis Ash finally steps outside and gradually thins away into nothing, we understand that this is a poetic lament for the loss of a talented young man, a threnody of the finest kind.
He dreamed a train is not for the usual popular matinee audience, because it doesn’t tell a direct story, convey a message, or spell anything out. But those who are willing to let themselves be absorbed by it and are able to recognise it for what it is, another step in the new direction that live theatre is taking, will be richly rewarded. It is a triumph of its kind.
He Dreamed A Train, a Force of Circumstance production, is part of the Brisbane Powerhouse creative development program SWEET and is at the Visy Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse until October 26.
Image Travis Ash in He Dreamed a Train
He Dreamed A Train
Brisbane Powerhouse & Metro Arts
Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre
October 15 – 26 2014
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
On the weekend my friend and I were almost killed by a driver who, prompted by the green arrow, obviously, plunged straight ahead and directly into us from an inner right turning lane as I took the outer right turning lane in Bowen Hills on our way to Brisbane Powerhouse from the Sunshine Coast. (Usually the trip is just slow and frustrating due to roadworks!). Also, I sat through one of the most poorly written and unimaginatively staged plays I’ve ever had the misfortune to see (I know; everybody else thinks it’s brilliant! WTF?!), and I drove six hours in a day, to Toowoomba and back (I know; Kate Foy does it all the time!), to join my family as we said our final farewell to my lovely grandma. As I held Poppy in my arms and watched my grandma being laid to rest I remembered the shooting star I’d spotted on Friday night after returning home from the car accident that almost killed Dee and I, which also meant we’d missed the first ten minutes of He Dreamed A Train. It blazed across the sky for what seemed like forever to remind me that we are okay. And we are still here. And our time is precious. And that it is vital to experience theatre that changes us, rather than choose to suffer through theatre – or anything or anyone in life – that does nothing for us.
He Dreamed A Train (the title of the show is from Margi’s brother’s book of the same name) is about the reverie of remembrance, and honouring our memories… Mindfulness cannot be our mantra. There is a place for the past, and if we can resist staying there, if we can pull ourselves back into the present to live it fully, there are important lessons to be learned. Or not. And that’s why those lessons – the unlearned – continue to come at us.
Margi Brown Ash is a storyteller and teacher of the finest sort. Her delicious stories are slices of an extraordinary life, informed just as much by experience as by ancient myths and thrilling tales of heroes, dragons, kings, caves, and the power of gods and me
The combined creative forces of Margi Brown Ash, Travis Ash, and Benjamin Knapton means this company, Forces of Circumstance, lives up to its name, reviving notions of what contemporary theatre can look like, and sharing reverence for the traditions of oldschool storytelling. The forces of this circumstance are pretty powerful if you’re willing to listen.
Before there was ever a poor excuse for an animated film inspired by the book, Dr Seuss wrote The Lorax, and the magic of that opening, which I’ve heard read to me countless times, and read to hundreds of children over years of teaching is the mood established while we take our seats. Throughout the show there are the sounds of the Australian bush, evoking memories of my own. (I make a mental note: take in on Monday, my copy of The Lorax for our science unit, Save Planet Earth). Remember, we missed the first ten minutes of the show and Judy Hainsworth, that First World White Girl, acting as Brisbane Powerhouse usher extraordinaire, was obliged to keep us in the sound lock for a little while so my experience of the start of the show was the usual juggle of handbag, phone, wine (yes, you have time to check in and get to the bar when you’re late), and a short succession of single sounds; Margi’s gentle, soothing, telephone voice at one end of a conversation, footsteps and then static, at which point we were taken to our seats.
Note: If you are late to a show, don’t be uppity and expect to be seated after the show has started until a suitable break in the performance. Don’t be rude to the box office staff or the ushers. They’ve been told that a lock out period applies. This is a creative decision as much as it is a courtesy to the artists, and to the patrons who’ve arrived on time. There’s no need to begrudge anyone (ever). Everyone is doing his or her job. Ok? Ok.
Margi’s brother was diagnosed with a debilitating terminal illness, which changed everything and nothing. We journey with Margi and her son, Travis, in the role of her brother at the age of 23, to discover other worlds, the worlds in which they lost and found themselves as children, and then again as adults. These are compelling performances, gently guided by Knapton. I love the moments of furious pace (Travis Ash’s dramatic retelling of The Myth of Er, his impressive musicianship, and Margi’s moments of consternation as she sees her brother sitting, having fallen to the floor, waiting for anyone else but her to help him up) and the languid turns (Margi’s thoughts, spoken aloud as she wanders through the family home, not quite ever finishing packing the books into boxes and again, Travis Ash’s skill at the piano). We can’t help but join these two as they leap into paintings and their deepest memories. At just under 70 minutes, it’s a comparatively short show, and yet it feels like the longest time – time is stretched like a shooting star moment – in the presence of Margi Brown Ash & co.
The increasingly difficult task these days of keeping an audience captivated is made easier in this circumstance by the seamless incorporation of sounds (Travis Ash) and images, which are thrown across walls and gradually, magically bring to life Hogwarts style, a painting of a landscape from another time and place (Nathan Sibthorpe, Freddy Komp & Benjamin Knapton). Though I don’t mind it, Dee can’t stand the static sound, and so we see it serve its purpose to challenge sensory perception and unsettle entirely. In stark contrast to the harsh static, we are both mesmerised as much by the misty, moving, changing and raining painting as we are by the performances. I leave this show feeling vulnerable, and uplifted, as if my child has revealed to me her special secret fairy wish and I just know I can make it come true before the fairy fades away and…well, I mean I hope I can.
The energy & momentum of the storytelling, its ebb and flow, the naturalness and grandeur of delivery, the rich vocal work and dramatic images cast by the actors’ physical states and their connection with each other, as well as the tech wizardry, make for a fascinating insight into the mind and heart of Margi Brown Ash, a true theatrical treasure.
He Dreamed A Train is one of the most challenging and entirely engrossing new works you’ll see this year. I’m sure it will have another life after this (Sweet!) Brisbane Powerhouse season (I’d love to see it come to the Sunshine Coast), but if you can catch it in the Visy space, do. When there are magical, beautiful, inspiring and life-changing tales such as this to be told, there had better be a bloody good reason to endure anything less intelligent, or less lovely in life.