“Look at me. You have to look at me. It’s just a photograph. A stupid photograph. Ain’t gonna hurt you.”
Perth theatre company Feet First Collective presents the WA premiere of S-27 as part of 10 Nights in Port, the City of Fremantle’s new winter arts festival.
First produced in the United Kingdom by playwright Sarah Grochala in 2007, S-27 will offer a glimpse into how human beings survive in extreme times, exploring how far people will go and who they will betray to save themselves. An award-winning playwright, Grochala has drawn on history, prison records and interviews from Cambodia’s S-21 prison under the rule of the Khmer Rouge, which has inspired the play’s plot and characters.
Teresa Izzard, the founder of Feet First and director of the S-27 Perth performance, spoke to Grok about the challenges of bringing a script to life, what audiences can expect to see in the play, as well as her role as a movement coach.
Feet First is a production company founded in 2015 and specialises in making contemporary independent theatre. Izzard says it is a way for her to have more agency into how a theatre piece is made. The director and producer says she has created a lot of theatre under intense time pressure and by having her own company, it allows her to create the work environment and attitudes she hopes for.
“I can make sure the work I’m putting out is not only work I believe in, but also work that has drawn in others and has a very strong sense that it is an important piece of theatre to share right here, right now,” she says.
Izzard chose to pursue the production of S-27 as the director, producer and movement coach, investing a lot of time and money to get it under way. Izzard says it has been in production since she picked the play in 2017 and with producing partners, Fremantle Festival, the Department of Culture and the Arts and the City of Fremantle coming on board, Feet First has lots of local support and interest in their performances.
S-27 follows May, who is a photographer and must document dissenters who have rebelled against an authoritarian regime called ‘the Organisation’. Izzard believes Grochala created this play to show a modern audience that events like the atrocities and genocides that occurred in Cambodia can happen anywhere.
The Khmer Rouge was the name of the Communist Party of Kampuchea that rose to power and ruled Cambodia in 1975 until its fall in 1979; during this time a brutal regime was carried out in a secret prison called S-21. Thousands of people were tortured, interrogated and accused of illegal activities before being executed at the infamous Killing Fields. Along with being interrogated, prisoners were photographed in order to prove to Khmer Rouge leaders their orders had been carried out. Now a genocide museum, the horrors have been preserved inside the walls of S-21. Many historians say, that although the most gruesome photos to come out of Cambodia were those of the mass graves, the most haunting were the portraits.
Image Credit: The Killing Fields Museum of Cambodia
However, while S-27 is loosely based around this era it is set in an unnamed Western country, which according to Izzard, could be Britain. By creating this setting it takes away the sense of the ‘other’ and forces us to look more closely at ourselves and our life.
“It poses the fact that it’s not just in countries far away from us [that] these dangers can occur and if we’re not careful, something like that could happen here. If you have a look around, aspects of extreme conditions are already here in Australia,” says Izzard.
The main character May is played by actress Gabriella Munro; Izzard proclaims that she is a very interesting character: “We are looking at a woman who was traumatised as a child. She was forced to kill her own sister and lost her family and sense of security. May has transferred all her feelings around those events to the Organisation.”
May is desperately trying to live day to day but is constantly triggered by the fact she must spend her days photographing people she knows are being sent to their death.
Not only has Izzard undertaken the role of directing and producing, but she is also a qualified Somatic Movement Educator. She has always been intrigued with how we communicate meaning through our bodies, and has been trained in the methodology developed by European dance artist and theorist Rudolf Laban.
“Somatic is the first-person experience of your own body movement … it’s not about being aware of what you look like on the outside but really tuning in to the experiences of moving from within,” she says.
In the play, Izzard has choreographed a love scene and works with the actors to focus on the internal experience of movement when creating their gesture and posture for their characters.
Considering the Fremantle Arts Centre’s dark history, the venue seems a fitting place for S-27 to unfold. Izzard says although the play wasn’t picked for the FAC, the unique and haunting atmosphere of the building will be a feature of the production.
“We are designing the performance experience around the specifics of the location and really honing in on the immersive aspect by making sure we are taking advantage of the unique architecture and mood of the FAC,” says Izzard.
The immersive aspect will come at the beginning of the play and the audience can expect to be standing, walking and climbing stairs prior to the performance, but will be seated for most of the night.
“The play will still exist but it will exist within this immersive world. We’re inviting the audience to come on a journey into this dystopic and dark world we’ve created.”
When asked if she has a favourite scene or line from S-27, Izzard laughs and says, “Oh my goodness, I have so many!”
Most of them are lines that are hard to understand in a conversation context but, “I’m not your fucking slave”, is a line expressed by one of the characters when there is a flip in power positions between one of characters.
“[The character] is saying you don’t own me, I’m going to make it out of here and takes her power back,” she says.
There is another line, “I could see clearly and hear clearly and words have their own meaning again”, which Izzard says is this sense of escaping the brain washing happening in the institutionalised Organisation and being able to live freely as a human being again.
Izzard says that Grochala’s writing is elegant and mysterious and is very challenging to bring to life, “it’s like a puzzle you have to solve!” As a result, there are many themes and questions that will leave the audience thinking well after the performance has ended.
One of the main themes in the play is what humans do in strange situations but it also looks at what makes us humans and what makes life worth living.
“If your entire existence consists of taking photos of people who are about to be killed, is that a life worth saving? Why are we motivated to live within those situations?”
Feet First hopes to establish a conversation in questions and be provocative by exploring these extreme issues. Could this be a future for Australia? How would we get to this point?
The season of S-27 is running at the FAC and depending on how it goes, Izzard hopes to take the play to the Adelaide Fringe Festival. In terms of what’s next for the Australian-based creative, upcoming productions are keeping her busy.
“I’ve got a play I wrote as part of my PhD with my creative partner Silvia Lehmann called The Yellow Wallpaper which is an adaptation of a short story by Charlotte Gilman and I’m really interested to see if I can get a season up in London.”
But for now, what sort of people are going to love S-27?
“I think it’s a show with a wide appeal, but anyone who knows about the history of Cambodia [or is] interested in how these things happen; how do these extreme political parties gather momentum and create these disasters?”
Theatre lovers who are interested in exploring humanity and immersive theatre should also find enjoyment from the performance. Basically, “anyone who’s interested in seeing a really good play!” Izzard laughs.
“It’s a fantastic story and I’ve got some awesome artists who are very dynamic to watch and very keen to share this story.”
Keep an eye out for Grok’s review of S-27 after its opening night on Friday July 12.
S-27 runs at the FAC from this Friday until Sunday July 21, for tickets and more information visit the website.