by Elissa Blake
January 20, 2012
If you were to write your own history of everything, what would you include? Man walking on the moon or the sinking of the Titanic? The death of Alexander the Great or birth of the first IVF baby? Would you favour the invention of cuneiform script over the development of the contraceptive pill? And what about the first stirrings of biological life in the primordial oceans? Or the formation of our galaxy?
This is the challenge Belgian theatre-maker Alexander Devriendt set seven actors—three from the Sydney Theatre Company's the Residents and four from his Belgian performance group Ontroerend Goed—to create a new play, A History of Everything.
They came up with a script that compresses about 14 billion years into 100 minutes of stage time. Each performance starts in the present, including the news of the day, and then works back to the Big Bang and into "nothingness".
"We all threw in ideas and came up with the stuff that fascinates us as human beings," Devriendt says. He was given free rein to create the show for the STC (in association with the Sydney Festival), after making an impression with his anarchic study of puberty, Once and for All We're Gonna Tell You Who We Are So Shut up and Listen (STC, 2009). The company's first visit to Sydney was with The Smile Off Your Face, in which participants were seated in a wheelchair, blindfolded and lightly bound, then guided through a series of sensual experiences (Sydney Festival, 2009).
"I always have these crazy ideas about making something that has never been seen before," Devriendt says. "I was reading about evolution and cosmos theory and I was finding it fascinating and baffling. I thought, 'I've read about the history of the world or the history of human civilisation but I've never seen a history of everything before, so let's try it.' It was a big idea but it needed to be personal."
Residents Zindzi Okenyo, Cameron Goodall and Tahki Saul went to Ghent, Belgium, to work with Ontroerend Goed. In the resulting show, Saul tackles most scientific discoveries, while Okenyo plays the US presidents, including Barack Obama. The entire cast impersonates our primate ancestors and amoeba.
"I also get to play Michael Jackson and do an impersonation of Darth Vader, something I've always wanted to do," Saul jokes. Okenyo says: "I get to play Tom Cruise, that's fun."
The actors use handmade props and toys to tell the story, including cotton mushrooms to represent the A-bomb and a glass of water spilling across a map of the world to represent the tsunami of Boxing Day 2004. "It looks like we're just playing around," Saul says. "But it does make you think about whether or not you have a significant role to play in all this history."
Devriendt says the play is driven by questions of identity, memory and significance. "Do our memories decide who we are? I know I believe in human rights and I believe in love but those ideas are not mine, they come from all these other people throughout time," he says.
"That's what is fascinating.
"I wanted to make a play that doesn't make you feel insignificant; instead, it makes you feel treasured because of that insignificance."