Thursday, January 19, 2012

CultureLab - Rewinding time reveals our insignificance

Wendy Zukerman, Asia-Pacific reporter
(Image: Brett Boardman)

Once the universe stops expanding, it will shrink, and everything inside it will cram into a dense, hot crunch. As the universe collapses, the destiny of life is unknown. But here’s an idea.
When the anti-Big Bang washes over our universe, what if history happens again, but in reverse? We are born by opening our wrinkled and aged eyes. We die when we crawl into our mother’s wombs. As time goes on, our skin becomes taut and our parents enter our lives, rather than leave them.
This is the picture painted by A History of Everything, which premiered at the Sydney Theatre Company last night and will tour Europe in March.
Written by Alexander Devriendt and Joeri Smet of Ontroerend Goed, a theatre collective in Gent, Belgium, A History of Everything is a rewound journey through our planet’s past.
Starting today and ending six billion years ago, we are dragged through a history - littered with war and bloodshed, but also moments of wonder and discovery.
The setting is simple. Torn material in the shape of the Earth’s continents blanket the stage. Seven actors dance around the two dimensional world recreating significant - and trivial - moments in our past. Meanwhile, a countdown on the back screen tells us the date of the events.
It is immediately clear that as nations struggle with ongoing conflict, the western world consistently concerns itself with trifling matters. Amid the hostilities plaguing the globe, our attention is drawn to the release of Katy Perry’s fake eyelash line.
To depict war, one performer officiously places black placards imprinted with the word WAR around the world on stage. Once she is finished, large portions of Africa and the Middle East are covered.
As time goes backwards we are re-introduced to YouTube, Facebook and Google. Princess Diana dies again. Bill Clinton “did not have sexual relations with that woman,” and Margaret Thatcher is appointed the Prime Minister of the UK.
In 1945, a plane is slowly walked across the stage. It lands in Japan and is replaced by two mushroomed plumes of smoke. World War II is upon us, followed by the depression and World War I. We take a sojourn through a production line from the industrial revolution, and when performers arrive on stage donning crowns and smirks, the scramble for Africa has arrived.
At times history is awash with so much misery that our only light comes from scientific discoveries and artistic endeavours. Among the slave trade and murderous European monarchies, an apple hits Newton’s head. The audience takes a sigh of relief. Time cranks back.
Jesus is born. Islam is born. Judaism is born. Humans learn to domesticate animals and use tools. They migrate back to Africa, transform into monkeys and ultimately single celled organisms. Eventually, the continents of Earth mash together, forming a large paper ball and everything becomes black.
Though the play explores our collective history, it is far from a mere history lesson. Even the most knowledgeable audience member will be enticed by the artistry with which the Earth’s story is told. To capture the ice ages, for example, performers cake the stage with white paper which transforms into glowing stars when the lighting changes.
A History of Everything is also peppered with insightful and often funny monologues exploring the beginnings of colonisation, agriculture and religion. It is a humbling portrait of how modern humans came to be, and a playful exposition of the reality of our insignificance.
A History of Everything runs at the Sydney Theatre Company until 5 February. It will also tour through Europe in March and April, with performances in several cities in Belgium, as well as in Amsterdam and Plymouth in the UK.

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