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Who is meant to have an opinion in modern Australia?
Presented as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival, Trustees begins with a fairly simple premise – a debate between equals, questioning whether government funding in arts does more harm than good. But what begins as a robust discussion turns into something completely different over the course of the play, the change coming slowly at first, then all at once. The future of the fictional Lone Pine Theatre Company becomes mired in our pasts, with hundreds, if not thousands of years of cultural and emotional baggage weighing it down.
At the core of Trustees is its strong ensemble, a collective of theatre-makers who created this piece in collaboration with Natalia Kaliada and Nicolai Khalezin of Belarus Free Theatre. Devised theatre always asks a lot from actors, requiring them to interrogate themselves and their performance in new and unusual ways - and the creation of Trustees must have been more challenging than most. As the piece progresses, its artifice crumbles away and all we are left with is the actors themselves. Performed in the round, audience members may at times feel like they are missing something – a face turned away, a monologue delivered somewhere towards the other side of the room. But there is always something to keep you engaged, even if that means watching the faces of your fellow audience members. This is not a show that allows its audience to remain passive in their seats – it engages with spectators in several different ways throughout, and if the idea of audience participation makes your blood run cold, Trustees will definitely be a challenge.
Trustees' simple production design allows the piece to shift seamlessly between its several incarnations. Romanie Harper's set design is reminiscent of so many boardrooms and community halls, making it all the more unsettling as its set pieces are transformed and revealed. The changing performance space is aided by Amelia Lever-Davidson's lighting design and Jethro Woodward's sound design, both of which are subtle but very effective.
Trustees is a performance that doesn't seek to answer our questions – instead, it looks inwards, to its collaborators and performers, and waits to see what kind of questions emerge. It asks us who we are listening to in this country, and who we are choosing to ignore. And finally, it asks its audience to look inwards as well – what are you afraid of hearing? Maybe it's best you don't answer that.