A rural homestead flickers on a screen. Deep blue moonlight reflects off the corrugated iron roof and lamps glow on the veranda. The house looms out of an inky-black forest. It is almost three-dimensional, a composite of 24 different images. The projection is divided into imperfectly-aligned quadrants that cycle jerkily through three frames each. These are in turn projected on two scrims, one several meters in front of the other. You could stare at this image all night, lulled by the primitive synthesizer loop and cheery, fuzzy voices of AM radio diffused through 48 speakers suspended above you. All is childhood and reverie, falling asleep in the back seat on a long nocturnal drive. The Experiment‘s opening mise-en-scène is a beautiful moment in itself, showcasing the incredible attention to detail and aesthetic unity of its creative team.
The multiple visual and aural perspectives of the opening also flag the work’s central theme: The unreliability of memory. The musical theatre work (in the sense of the European genre that introduces theatrical elements into musical performance) is based on a monologue by the British playwright Mark Ravenhill, who was in turn inspired by the Australian philosopher Peter Singer. A solo performer (the guitarist Mauricio Carrasco) recites the text in a careful monotone, trying to remember the circumstances of a series of horrific experiments he and his partner performed on children. One moment he is an accessory, the next he is the perpetrator, once more he is a concerned neighbour sneaking around the house with a video camera. Scenes are described in detail and then summarily denied as never having taken place. Once more the sound design plays on a multiplicity of perspectives. Seven microphones hang in a semicircle around Carrasco, capturing his voice from different angles and projecting them, along with pre-recorded text, in a disjointed chorus.
The piece raises a range of ethical issues, though with varying degrees of clarity and urgency. There are traces of Peter Singer’s utilitarian argument that animals with similar levels of awareness and intelligence should be treated alike. If we are comfortable performing painful medical experiments on non-human animals, then we should feel comfortable performing the same experiments on severely intellectually-disabled humans. Describing an experiment viewed through a crack in the shed door, Carrasco-as-concerned-neighbour claims he wanted to say (with the staircase wit typical of situations where one’s moral fiber is tested—in Melbourne we could substitute “tram wit”) “We are no better than animals. Is this what we are doing with what God has given us?” The neighbour upholds the idea of human exclusivity, that any human life is more valuable than one of another species. But the experimenters do not appear to be using severely intellectually-disabled children. Nor does Singer advocate the use of humans in medical experiments as much as urges us to reconsider our treatment of animals.
The dilemma of The Experiment is closer to a “trolley problem”: You control the switch on a railway track and can choose to either leave a runaway carriage to plow through five people or divert it to a track with one person on it. Most people accept that switching the trolley to the less populated track is preferable to doing nothing, even though this makes them an active participant in the moral wrong of the death of one person. By contrast, most people will not choose to push a particularly heavy person on to the track to stop the train from killing five people. This latter form of the dilemma, the “fat man” version, is that presented in The Experiment. The protagonist’s partner is suffering from an incurable and presumably fatal illness. They choose to infect their children in the hope of finding a cure for the parent, the children, and many others. Again, this doesn’t present as a compelling ethical dilemma, as the chances of finding a cure are so uncertain. The one moment that makes you stop and think is when Carrasco says “I loved my children, but I loved my partner.” This—if the situation were actually as determinate as a trolley problem—introduces a new layer of emotional and ethical tension. This is especially interesting as the “partner’s” existence is uncertain. Despite the half-cocked ethical dilemmas, Carrasco provides an absolutely compelling, understated delivery of the tortured text.
As a piece of musical theatre, The Experiment has the virtue of giving text and music their due. This virtue also turns out to be the piece’s weakness. Musical theatre often plays on the ecstasy of the syllable, breaking texts down into their phonetic elements and repeating them as a dramatisation of language’s inherent instability or on the assumption that the sounds will eventually give up their hidden aesthetic interest. The Experiment takes an attitude towards language that I like very much, which is to take the instability of language for granted and then see how many meanings or interpretations can be derived from an only mildly garbled text.
In musical theatre, music is often reduced to the parodying of musical gestures and conventions. The Experiment takes the bold step of including three distinct pieces of music for solo guitar performed without any text at all. Each piece is played on a different guitar that references the text in some way. The first, melancholic piece for acoustic guitar reflects the pathos of the narrator’s opening text. The second piece, by guest composer Fernando Garnero, is performed with a variety of tools on an electric guitar placed inside a vitrine. The tools and vitrine reference the experiments conducted upon the children. The final piece is not performed by Carrasco, but is programmed for a stunning mechanical guitar built by Nara Demasson and Ben Kolaitis. The guitar is constructed from two guitars stuck together top-to-tail with a variety of solenoids and servo motors activating beautiful copper, brass, and wooden arms, plectrums, and wheels. This sculpture reflects the twin children treated as biological machines, or perhaps the couple bound together by their past. While the decision to include musical interludes was refreshing, they jarred uncomfortably with the surrounding theatrical episodes. I wonder whether this all comes back to that fabulous opening mise-en-scène. The opening established the expectation of a primarily theatrical piece into which a purely musical performance could only intrude. Despite this formal incongruity, the team have set a new benchmark for the detailed and sensitive integration of video and sound design in musical theatre.
Performed by Mauricio Carrasco
Text by Mark Ravenhill
Music by David Chisholm
Guest composer Fernando Garnero
Media Artist Matthew Gingold
Dramaturg Jude Anderson
The Melbourne Festival of the Arts
The Malthouse Theatre
23 October 2015