Nicola Gunn: clowning around with moral dilemmas – The Australian


Nicola Gunn’s spiralling, discursive and rampantly funny one-woman show is a moral conundrum. Out running in the Belgian town of Ghent, she sees a non-European man — a refugee, she imagines, though he speaks the local language and she does not — skipping stones with his sons. But it turns out that he’s throwing stones. And his target is a duck. Gunn interrogates and reframes what she has seen and how she has reacted. It’s a cat’s cradle of tangled ethical threads, an arm wrestle between her willingness to judge and her unwillingness to be judged.

Gunn ricochets from idea to idea like a virtuoso comedian. She skips from Belgium to Poirot to David Suchet to Jeffrey Archer (via their respective Thames penthouses) and on to parties with champagne and sausage rolls. The writing is dizzying and polished. One can imagine someone such as Billy Connolly spinning it.

But Gunn’s voice gives the story texture. Despite having lived in Australia for a quarter-century, her accent is poshly English. There are delicious air quotes around everything she says. Her voice is, by turns, anxious and confident, modest and bawdy, serious and funny. So when she mutters: “I just want to f..k everything”, it’s like we’re in a primly erotic Mary Leunig cartoon. Then she shoots a “Do you know that feeling?” at a specific audience member and gets a barely audible “yep”.

Gunn is a clown and a shape-shifter. Her early monodramas leaned towards the grotesque. Since the Sans Hotel productions, the movement in her plays has been more refined and dancerly. Here it’s interpretative aerobics.

Gunn is on the move almost constantly. The gestures are only fleetingly relevant. She’s standing on one leg, stork-like, as she talks about full human potential. There’s a zombie walk when she says “dead duck”. Suddenly she’s a bucking rodeo rider, lasso over her head. While joking about sitting ducks, Gunn does a rear leg extension straight out of the Denise Austin Hips, Thighs & Buttocks playbook.

Of all the people quoted and name-checked — Agatha Christie, Arthur Schopenhauer, WH Auden and Maurice Maeterlinck — it seems the most important is Lithuanian-born philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. While Descartes navel-gazed, Levinas started with the ethical “I”. Responsibility for “the other” was his foundation stone.

Levinas also wrote about the temptation of temptation. That, for me, and I suspect also for Gunn, is what art is. What art does. It allows us to expand our experience by dreaming, by playing, by conjuring.

Piece for Person and Ghetto Blaster. By Nicola Gunn. Malthouse Theatre and Performing Lines. Beckett Theatre, Melbourne, March 16. Tickets: $45. Bookings: (03) 9685 5111 or online. Duration: 70min, no interval. Until Sunday.

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