UnHOWsed is more than a play. It’s a remarkable collaboration between Voices of the Southside, director Deborah Leiser-Moore and composer Nela Trifkovi. Drawing on the ensemble’s lived experience, UnHOWsed draws us into a survivalist mindset, highlighting the struggle of being homeless, older and female.
The word “homeless” conjures images of tatty clothes and dirty fingernails but not necessarily understanding. Thanks to the strength of its ensemble cast and amazing sound design, UnHOWsed breaks the empathy barrier, and allows us to see the humanity behind its ensemble’s struggle.
The creators don’t seek our sympathy – the play’s promotional material tells us they didn’t want to create more “pity porn”. And they haven’t. As all good theatre does, UnHOWsed provokes an array of emotions. While I spent most of the sixty-minute performance on the edge of my seat, the ensemble allowed me more than a few moments of relief using humour and celebration to break the tense atmosphere.
The performance begins with a unique chant –the ensemble draws a series of three breaths in unison, exhales, pauses and repeats. This cycle becomes a motif throughout the performance, triggering a sense of instability or the feeling of waking suddenly, gasping for breath. It provokes a physical reaction and puts the audience in the head space of living moment to moment – fighting to survive.
Long after these sequence ends, Trifkovi’s soundscape preserves and enhances this sense of ill ease. This atmosphere is a solid foundation for the performers to tell their tales. As a series of tableaux unfolds, the ensemble directs our attention to each of its members in turn, watching as each woman steps into the spotlight to tell her story.
Some of these women share anecdotes which punctuate the intensity of the aural landscape, sparking compassion. Others show us small, simple and silent moments.
One woman guides a small car across the stage and sets out her dinner on its hood. Several women use a shower at the rear of the stage before playing out their scenes.
At one point, one ensemble member breaks into a stream of consciousness monologue. Like most of the performance, it’s dark but punctuated by moments of humanity. As the performer’s situation grows more and more dire, it’s the approach of Christmas which seems to stress her most. In moments like this, UnHOWsed knocks down the invisible wall between its subjects and its audience. After all, most of us can relate to feeling financial stress in the lead up to Christmas.
As challenging as the material is at times, it’s clear that the show’s creators are determined not to let its audience leave in a state of depression. The final moments of the performance make a deliberate switch into a celebratory mood, once again reminding us that for all they’ve been through, these women can still laugh, and dance and sing.
UnHOWsed is playing at TheatreWorks in St Kilda until November 3rd. Tickets are available on the Theatre Works website.