Point of view: THE RABBLE’s Cain and Abel

We are told Cain and Abel is “a show about violence and reinventing history, made by women.” We are told Melbourne theatre-makers THE RABBLE are “a law unto themselves.” We are told their method is “basically to take a big idea, lock themselves in a room, and make a piece of theatre.” We are told many things, but somehow this production, presented at Belvoir’s Downstairs Theatre by Melbourne group THE RABBLE with Belvoir, falls short of being the thrilling visceral and emotional wallop we were expecting (and told to expect).

In a season which started with Oedipus Schmoedipus, also a show made by women who took a big idea and locked themselves in a room, anything which thematically follows it is going to suffer and or feel like an imitation. Created and designed by Kate Davis (set and costume) and Emma Valente (sound and lighting, as well as director), it is a short sixty-minute examination of the original biblical act of violence, the moment domestic violence first occurred. In an essay by James Jackson on Belvoir’s website, we are told the key to THE RABBLE’s style, and perhaps Cain and Abel’s success, is “they do not present the work, but present its subtext, mixing the contemporary with the classic, the nightmarish with the dreamlike and the grotesque with the sublime.” Jackson goes on to say that THE RABBLE “have an extended and invigorating history of eliciting theatre’s social function and the divisive nature of their works has long promoted keen debate.” Perhaps they do, but it was not apparent in this production.
Performed for the most part inside a glass prism jutting out from the wall of the tiny Downstairs space, it makes the already-intimate theatre feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, like we are being intruded upon, assaulted before our eyes and, in light of the story, I guess this has its desired effect. The trouble is, when coupled with the seemingly obligatory haze and the simple lighting, the voices (when they do speak, after what feels an uncomfortably long time) are muffled, indistinct, hard to distinguish, and the early scenes are marred because of this. When the two actors – Dana Miltins and Mary Helen Sassman – do continue to speak (albeit without the haze), the scene takes a while to warm up but eventually evolves into the crux of the story, and indeed the production. ‘What happened,’ Cain asks Abel. ‘I walked into a door,’ Abel says. ‘What happened,’ Cain asks. ‘I tripped up the stairs,’ Abel says. ‘What happened,’ Cain asks, and the scene continues with the reason shifting and changing until the truth - a truth - begins to emerge. It’s not a comfortable scene, because we are all familiar with how susceptible we are, each and every one of us, to manipulating the reality of a situation to protect those involved, let alone ourselves.            
There are moments of pitch-black humour, some of which can and will pass by unrecognised, but it isn’t enough to counter and simultaneously double the emotional impact, compound the perplexing images being presented in front of us. When asked what audiences can expect, Valente replied “people can expect to be submerged into a new kind of world, which is not necessarily immediately understandable[;] you can’t immediately grasp what’s literally going on." So long as we know it was a conscious decision and not just us, the audience, who were left scratching our heads as to exactly what was going on for much of the time.
It’s a bold move to shift the gender of the protagonists when presenting a story we are usually told about male characters, but it shouldn’t be. I’ve personally never read the story of Cain and Abel as being about brothers in an explicit biological sense (i.e. being the sons of Eve and Adam). Like much of the Bible, it’s an allegory, a story, around which entire schools of thought have grown, died, been fought over and become entrenched in our socio-cultural way of thinking, but I’ve never thought of them being anything but blood-brothers, the archetypal good-brother bad-brother combination, yin and yang, light and dark, chalk and cheese, day and night; nothing but archetypes. 
Ultimately, this production left me largely unmoved and unaffected, and I found it to be dramaturgically confused (as well as three years too late in jumping on the theatre-in-a-glass-box bandwagon). Maybe I’m being a little too harsh here, but for a show which bills itself as being “about violence and reinventing history,” a show which is about challenging the societal norm, I wanted to be left squirming in my seat, uncomfortable, questioning my own beliefs and thoughts, and I wasn’t.

Theatre playlist: 26. Kiss With A Fist, Florence + the Machine

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