Sunday, October 8, 2017

Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remix

Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed, edited and directed by Adele Chynoweth.  The Street at The Street Two, Canberra, September 30 – October 14, 2017.

Designer – Imogen Keen; Movement Director/Choreographer – Emma Strapps; Sound Designer – Shoeb Ahmad; Lighting Designer – Linda Buck

Performed by Ben Drysdale and Ruth Pieloor

Reviewed by Frank McKone
October 8

Adele Chynoweth, like an expert DJ, has mixed clips taken from 43 poems and songs, supported by The Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, “to devise a poetry anthology of Canberra verse – a theatrical work embodied by professional actors as a complement to the conventional genre of poetry readings”.

Ruth Pieloor

Ben Drysdale

The result is a quite fascinating performance-poetry production: 80 minutes of exploration of personal and social behaviour starting from the key quote Remember, sister, we are under sedation of habit, of hope, of lust from the poem Under Sedation by the classic Canberra poet A.D. Hope, published in A Late Picking 1975.  The whole poem begins and ends the show, and is available for download at

Canberra becomes a character in its own right, not because of many explicit references, but as an ineffable spirit expressed through all these different writers, ranging from the Australian National University academic A.D. Hope to the famous Wiradjuri man Kevin Gilbert in his poem Tree

Gilbert was instrumental in setting up the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the tree-lined lawns facing the original Parliament House, and his poem stood out for me against the dark side of Under Sedation.  I have reprinted it here from the obituary by his daughter Kerry-Reed Gilbert, published shortly after her father’s death in April 1993, in Green Left Weekly:

I am the tree

the lean hard hungry land

the crow and eagle

sun and moon and sea

I am the sacred clay

which forms the base

the grasses vines and man

I am all things created

I am you and

you are nothing

but through me the tree

you are

and nothing comes to me

except through that one living gateway

to be free

and you are nothing yet

for all creation

earth and God and man

is nothing

until they fuse

and become a total sum of something

together fuse to consciousness of all

and every sacred part aware


in true affinity

In a talk before the performance today, Adele Chynoweth said “We didn’t want to sedate the audience”.  The design in-the-round, the lighting, sound and choreography, and the vocal and movement and characterisation skills of both actors, as well as the choices and layout of the texts and songs certainly made sure we were never sedated.  The range of emotions from laughter, often with a sense of irony, concern about serious social problems like drug-taking up and down the social scale,  sadness, for example when an intimate relationship breaks down, or death occurs, meant that our attention never flagged.

For me, the song that formed the third strong support with Hope’s and Gilbert’s poems was Fred Smith’s Dust of Uruzgan.  I have reviewed Smith’s work before on this blog, at the National Folk Festival, April 5 2015 and again in the one-off Soldier Songs and Voices, March 10, 2016.  When the verses of that song were interspersed between others’ poems, and especially because of the quality and strength of Ben Drysdale’s singing and guitar playing, I felt the effect was even more powerful.  As I wrote in 2015 “Then there’s Fred – Fred Smith, that is.  Canberran to the boot-straps.  A DFAT warrior with a successful diplomatic record in some of the war-torn and socially messy parts of the world, who writes ascerbic songs about life.”

So I found in Under Sedation: Canberra Verse Remixed the soul of this bureaucratic capital city that will surprise many outsiders, and encourage those of us who live here and seek out the arts for our self-expression.  I think I am not going too far if I say this is perhaps the best original work I have seen at The Street, showing the value of Caroline Stacey’s leadership as artistic director and CEO.

Ruth Pieloor and Ben Drysdale