In a festival full of big ideas and abstract concepts, Dear John is deceptively simple. At first, the audience struggles to find a pattern, a narrative or even a theme. However, once they give up on this, once they sit back and absorb what they are seeing and hearing, they learn that the point of Dear John is just that – to watch and to listen, and to enjoy the commotion.
Dear John¸ by Taiwan-based company M.O.V.E Theatre, is dedicated to and inspired by John Cage and his composition, 4’33. 4’33 is famous not for its sound, but for its silence; it’s about tuning into the ambient sound that surrounds us, and finding music there. M.O.V.E Theatre have taken this idea and run with it, creating a show that combines sound, light, and physical theatre to create ambient sounds that are almost music, but not quite; they lead you to the music and the art, but you have to find it yourself. It’s not just music that they play with, either; the work borders on performance art, on dance and even at times on sculpture, without fully being any of those things.
Dear John has certainly required Nexus Arts to transform itself – with its usual tables and chairs nowhere to be seen and its stage hardly used, it’s clear that Dear John doesn’t need a traditional theatre; the space looks more like a museum than anything, with contraptions and pullies consuming the space. The audience are invited to move around during the show, or to plant themselves anywhere they can find a space, whether that’s on the stage, on the floor, or right up close to one of the props, and the performers move around too, using their devices to make sound, light, shadow and atmosphere.
The show uses a variety of lighting to pull the audience’s focus from one element to another, and despite the tech crew having to balance fairly lights, spotlights, and even handheld torches, the whole process feels fairly organic. The sound changes from being light, tinkly and pretty to being sometimes-painfully high-pitched and clashing – it just goes to show how a few bells and whistles (literally) can transform an atmosphere from placid and wondering to something that feels like a horror movie.
As much of the show is structured improvisation and relies on audience participation it’s tricky to evaluate the content – although the young audience member who was coaxed into chasing light across the room, precocious giggle in tow, was a highlight of 2 October’s show, she’s unlikely to feature in any of the others. However, the other shows are likely to have their own surprises, and their own precocious audience members.
The thing about ambient noise is that we’re trained to tune it out; if there’s no voice, no musical pattern and no alarm bells, our brain struggles to maintain focus, so in Dear John it’s easy to find your concentration slipping. But that’s precisely why the show exists – to force you to take a step back, learn to focus, and learn to appreciate ambient beauty.
*Paige Mulholland is a volunteer at the Adelaide Festival Centre