The Body in Contemporary Performance:
a comparative and personal response to Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound and Version 1.0’s Wages of Spin
Many contemporary performances were staged
throughout Sydney in 2006. This paper concentrates on two of these that
I saw in close succession: Nigel Jamieson’s Honour Bound, which
I saw at the Sydney Opera House on the 9th of August, and
Version 1.0’s Wages of Spin, at Performance Space on the 16th
of August. The temporal proximity of these performances is significant
because it meant unavoidable comparison between the two. However, it
wasn’t just their timing that invited comparison. They both dealt
with similar political subjects and production techniques. One, however,
affected me much more emotionally and physically than the other. This
paper interrogates the similarities and differences between the two
works, and uses a personal response to explore how my emotional reaction
influenced my reception of the pieces’ subject matter. I am taking
my cue for this from Susan Kozel’s understanding that:
. . . . .
An impersonal steel cage stands imposingly
on the stage. Its gridlines are stark, definite and uncompromising.
Six performers enter this cage and systematically dress themselves in
six neatly laid-out sets of orange jumpsuits, white socks, white sneakers,
and black hoods. A performer is set spinning in the air, and I am simultaneously
spun into this intensely physical work. The work incessantly demands
my visceral involvement. I feel my body heavily implicated and involved.
My breathing quickens as the performers fly through the air, and curls
in torture as they slide along the floor. They are nameless, they are
characterless, they are voiceless. They could be anybody, they could
be everybody. They could be me.
Another moment. A performer runs up
the scrolling text of the Geneva Convention, only to repeatedly fall
back, Sisyphus-like, to the stage. Each crash reverberates through me,
and I feel the seesaw of frustration and hope. The insistent, haunting
and beautiful score resonates within my body, and my emotions swell.
These are bodies in stress, trembling, thrown around in despair. Bodies
whose characterisations flow seamlessly, and significantly, between
the interrogator and the interrogated. Floodlights sweep upwards, momentarily
blinding me, implicating me as the interrogated.
The prisoners eventually become worn
down, ending up stripped of clothing. Their naked, hooded and vulnerable
bodies mirror those familiar images of Abu Ghraib’s political prisoners,
which are projected behind them. Familiar images, yes, but never have
I felt such a physical, emotional involvement in them as I feel right
now, with these live bodies in front of me. History collapses onto the
stage and I am reeling and disorientated. I feel as though I am also
stripped naked, ripped raw with emotion, empathy, horror.1
. . . . .
Honour Bound was a dance piece
staged as part of the “adventures in the dark” program at the Opera
House Studio. It was directed by Nigel Jamieson and choreographed by
Garry Stewart, and was based on the reported experiences of alleged
Australian terrorist David Hicks in the Guantanamo Bay detainment camp
in Cuba. Featuring six performers dressed in orange boiler suits, and
a set comprised of a large cage, the piece used highly physical movement,
including aerial work. The piece used interviews with Hick’s father
and stepmother, along with various documents relating to the Guantanamo
Bay facility, as its source material. As Jamieson said: ‘These documents
can be quite dry reading so we wanted to find a way of presenting these
principles in a living way’ (Phillips, 2006). Video projections and
voice-overs outlined these materials somewhat literally, however the
performers themselves were mute. Suspended on wires, they were flung
around the cage in a representation of the experience of an inmate.
. . . . .
Wages of Spin:
Danger is imminent. A hooded performer,
being directed to walk along a plank of wood, is stepping through a
minefield of upturned nails. A bland voice tells him
“foot up, left, left… toe down, shuffle forward… shuffle forward…
heel down,” and the tension in the room is palpable. The performer
is often just standing on one foot, slightly wobbling. What happens
if he loses his balance, if he has to put his foot down quickly? A camera,
wheeled along just inches from the performer’s feet, projects a large
image of them onto the screen at the back of the stage. I am forced
to watch this horror up close, this slow-motion car crash that seems
to have no end. I find my breath stuck, as my fixed stare moves between
the screen and the performer. Simultaneously, another performer begins
to question the first about the semantics of interrogation. I feel myself
willing him not to step on a nail, willing the talking performer to
stop distracting him. I have walked right into this, right into the
middle. The middle of danger and immediacy. The middle of a body in
Another moment. A camera is pointed
at the audience, and our images projected onto a giant screen. A performer
addresses the projected audience, rather than the live audience. I feel
a bodily disjointedness, watching myself being watched. Performers run
on the spot while delivering lines, and their growing exhaustion feeds
my own. In this race, the truth never catches up to the spin.
By the end of the performance, I am
somewhat numb from an overwhelming amount of facts, figures and evidence.
Although these facts are shocking, I have become somewhat desensitised
to them, and need the bodily connection to bring them home.2
. . . . .
Wages of Spin was a theatrical
performance staged initially in 2005, and re-staged this year, at the
Performance Space in Redfern. It was devised by Version 1.0, a Sydney-based
performance group. The piece was a ‘performative enquiry into the
 Iraq war,’ and used a wide range of source materials to highlight
the lies, spin and half-truths told by politicians when going to war.
It interrogated Australia’s engagement with the war, and contrasted
the war with other cultural events and personalities. Video also featured
heavily in this piece, as it was staged to look like the taping of a
television show. It included a stationary bank of monitors, some portable
monitors and a large projection screen. Three performers became a wide
variety of famous and not-so-famous people, in a verbatim-style piece.
This paper looks at why these two performances,
which had similar themes and stylistic elements, had such different
impacts on me. I felt much more connected, bodily and emotionally, to
Honour Bound, and it seems that the reason for the different reception
was in the use of the body. Bodies were treated differently in each
performance. In Honour Bound, the body was in a central position
as the location of pain and torture. Not only did we see bodies writhing
and flying around the space, but also much of the projected and spoken
text was about the implication of the body in human rights. There were
moments in Wages of Spin in which the body was implicated as
a location for emotion, however the performance was overwhelmingly cerebral,
concentrating largely on facts and figures, as well as verbal storytelling.
For me, the more visceral storytelling mode of Honour Bound was
far more effective in the piece’s resonance, and therefore its impact
was more profound. Peta Tait notes that:
Cultural difference and prior experience
is therefore integral to this study, as I am certain that my life experiences
and education have set me up in a certain way to receive this material.
This difference is precisely the reason I am adopting a personal approach
for this study, to make transparent the cultural bias and disposition
that I have brought to each performance.
Others have commented on the physicality
of these specific pieces. Nigel Jamieson spoke at length on his decision
to foreground the physicality of Honour Bound, saying that they
were ‘exploring the experiences of human beings pushed to the very
limits of human endurance and in a sense asking our performers to find
a way of making a parallel journey themselves’ (Sydney Opera House,
2006). He also said that the first image he had for the performance
was visualising Hicks as a ‘human figure spinning and turning in a
void’ (Marks, 2006), and that the primary objective for the production
was to make their discoveries about Guantanamo ‘more visceral than
what it is when reported in the media’ (Phillips, 2006). Terry Hicks,
talking about his willingness to collaborate on the project, noted that
artists ‘can get the message out in a very physical way’ (Sydney
Opera House, 2006), bringing to mind his own physical protest over his
son’s detainment, where he locked himself in a wire cage on a New
York street. Many reviewers also commented on the use of the body, in
particular remarking on the shocking and exhilarating ‘extreme physical
language’ (Litson, 2006) of the work.3 Even Senator Andrew
Bartlett, in his online weblog (2006), commented that Honour Bound
‘humanises rather than politicises the situation.’ Many reviewers
also mentioned the image of the performer running up the text of the
Geneva Convention, one saying that the moment is ‘one of the most
impressive marriages of visuals and human movement you’re likely to
see’ (Anonymous, 2006).4
The physical is not discussed to nearly
the same extent in reviews of Wages of Spin. Instead, commentators
tended to focus more on the research base of the work, as well as the
prevalence of the spoken word. Version 1.0 (2006) state that the piece
has a ‘meticulously researched script,’ and that one of the work’s
strengths is its ‘clever re-contextualisation of official public documents,
television interviews and even raves from columnists and webloggers.’
Many classified it as ‘research based political theatre’ (Fisher,
2006), and talked about words and images dominating the performance
(Bartlett, 2006; “eeyore,” 2006). The use of technology was also
mentioned, sometimes when it related to affect. For instance, one reviewer
comments on ‘a heightened sense of the physical anguish of torture
through intrusive camera angles’ (Woodhead, 2006), and another said:
‘the production assaults the unsuspecting audience with aural and
visual imagery’ (“eeyore,” 2006). Almost every reviewer mentioned
the beginning of the performance as a standout moment, for instance
saying that it utilises ‘a sort of abstract physicalisation’ (Murphy,
2006), and that ‘Hill’s tortuous hair-splitting is accompanied by
an equally disturbing visual analogue’ (Woodhead, 2006).
An element that is of interest to me
here is the differing modes of political criticism offered by the two
performances. Honour Bound offered criticism of David Hicks’
detention through a physical representation of his situation. Jamieson
deliberately did not want to openly criticise the Howard government,
for instance, because he felt that a more powerful statement was to
show in a very physical way the experience of being imprisoned and tortured.
In contrast, Wages of Spin employed a more overt mode of critique,
using a combination of recreated speeches and interviews, and personal
storytelling of the human effects. Of course, this is a performative
style choice, however it is also indicative of the degree of literal
representation of political issues.
Both performances used projected images
to some extent. Honour Bound projected filmed interviews with
David Hicks’ father and stepmother, as well as text from political
documents, pictures of David, a tour through the family home, and other
abstract patterns. Wages of Spin’s main projection showed close-ups
of certain parts of the action, the television-style display of performed
interviews, previously taped vox pop footage, and other war-related
images and videos. On this level, the performances were quite similar,
as they showed a variety of material relating to the subject matter.
The interaction between the projected images and the performers’ bodies
differed, though. In Honour Bound, the performers and projection
were often intertwined: performers’ bodies running across, crashing
into, and mirroring the projected images. In Wages of Spin, the
projection was addressed more directly, almost as another character
in the performance. Sometimes a performer would talk to the projection,
or it became a mock-up current affairs program, superimposed with spinning
logo, or the over-sized projected image of feet stepping over nails.
It could be said, that Honour Bound’s integration of the projection
was more organic, and often more ambiguous than that of Wages of
The costuming and positioning of bodies
in the performances is also noteworthy. In Honour Bound, the
performers were costumed as prisoners, in the orange boiler suits now
synonymous with the Guantanamo Bay facility. Version 1.0, however, chose
to costume the Wages of Spin performers in military camouflage.
This difference in costumes is significant. In Honour Bound,
the prisoner costumes signified victims, and therefore encouraged a
sympathetic reading from the audience. In contrast, the military uniforms
of the Wages of Spin performers signified the perpetrators of
violence, and therefore seemed to encourage an adverse perception. Interestingly,
though, these costumes were not indicative of the characterisations
for the entire length of the performances. While at some times, the
Honour Bound performers were prisoners, they had a plasticity that
meant they could also become guards, or other characters. Likewise,
the performers in Wages of Spin
were not always cast as military, or even political, characters. While
these characters were present, there were also many others, including
celebrities and victims.
The costumed bodies in both performances,
no matter which role they were playing, threw themselves in and out
of danger. In Honour Bound, it seemed that the danger was more
tangible, more immediate and certainly more affecting. The bodies were
often in agony, incredibly vulnerable or terrifying. The positioning
of bodies in Wages of Spin was slightly different, as spoken
dialogue was also used to convey the story. Much of the time, the body
was positioned as a speaking one, often standing or sitting in one place.
The focus of the provocation of anger in the piece therefore seemed
to be literal, as the content relied on text to carry its message. However,
there were moments of bodily danger in which my own body was also affected.
Especially clear in my memory are the moments of running on the spot,
together but isolated, and the initial interrogation scene. However,
even in these moments, words were still important, as they seemed to
add another dimension of danger and bafflement. For me, the moments
when the performing bodies were in immediate danger were the most interesting,
affective and emotional. In these moments, I empathised. I became
them. I could feel the tension in my own body, holding my breath, curling
my toes, stiffening my neck. Sometimes they moved me to tears, and sometimes
to anger. Both of these emotions, I believe, are somewhat social, and
conducive to transformation.
All of these differences may seem quite
trivial, and could largely be put down to aesthetic performative choices,
but they were integral to my reception and affective transformation
as an audience member. Far more of Honour Bound has lingered
in my body memory than Wages of Spin, and as a result I feel
more transformed by the experience of Honour Bound. The high
degree of stress and emotion that was embodied by the performers had
an immense impact on me. Sometimes I can still feel the memory of that
particular performance in my body, resonating with its social context.
Not only did my body feel physically transformed while experiencing
the performance, for instance holding my breath and stiffening my body,
but also this affective transformation resulted in the transformation
of my attitudes towards the issues of the piece. For me, this transformation
is true of Honour Bound far more so in general than Wages
of Spin. As one reviewer said about Honour Bound, ‘it’s
the way [it is] executed that will resonate most’ (Anonymous, 2006).
My experience of those emotions in relation to the piece’s content
has clarified Peta Tait’s (2002) notion of the ‘immense social power’
of emotions in the theatre, and relates to notions of the social body,
and ‘body politic.’ The power I felt as my body experienced
the piece was immense, and directly related to my reception of the issues
of the performance. This bodily affect was integral to my engagement
with Honour Bound, and therefore had a far greater impact on
its potential to transform my attitudes about the David Hicks and Guantanamo
Bay issue. Therefore, looking towards the use of the body in contemporary
performance is valuable in understanding transformation through such
... I am reeling and disorientated...
stripped naked, ripped raw with emotion, empathy, horror...5
1 Much of this text was originally published
as a review, see Needham (2006a).
"Eeyore" (2006) Putting
A Spin On Spin. M/C Reviews. http://reviews.media-culture.org.au
Anonymous (2006) Honour Bound (Review).
Three D World. http://www.threedworld.com.au
Bartlett, Andrew (2006) The Bartlett Diaries. www.andrewbartlett.com/blog
Craven, Adam (2006) Honour Bound.
Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.threedworld.com.au
Debelle, Penelope (2006) Isolation
That Knows No Bounds. The Age. www.theage.com.au/news/arts
Fisher, Josephine (2006) The Wages
Of Spin (Review). Melbourne Stage Online. www.melbournestage.com.au/ms1
Higgins, Jo (2006) Honour Bound (Review).
The Program. www.theprogram.net.au/reviewsSu
Iaccarino, Clare (2006) The Wages
Of Spin (Preview). Sydney Morning Herald. http://www.smh.com.au/news
Kozel, Susan (2000) 'Introduction To Part Eight: Post-Linearity And Gendered Performance Practice.' In Goodman, L. & De Gay, J. (Eds.) Routledge Reader In Politics And Performance. London, Routledge.
Litson, Jo. (2006) Where All The
World Is A Cage. The Australian. www.theaustralian.news.com.au
Malloch, Lachlan (2006) The Humanising
Of David Hicks. Green Left Weekly. www.greenleft.org.au/back/2006
Marks, Kathy (2006) Sydney Confronts
'Barbarism' Of Guantanamo. The Independent. http://news.independent.co.uk
McCallum, John (2006). Hicks's jail
tale triggers passionate response. The Australian. http://www.theaustralian.news
Murphy, Jess (2006) The Wages Of
Spin (Review). Vibewire. www.vibewire.net/3/sstrangio
Needham, Tessa (2006a) Honour Bound
(Review). Sydney Stage Online. http://www.sydneystage.com.au
Needham, Tessa (2006b) Wages Of Spin
(Review). Sydney Stage Online. http://www.sydneystage.com.au
Phillips, Richard (2006) Honour Bound
Director Nigel Jamieson Speaks With WSWS. World Socialist Web Site. www.wsws.org/articles/2006
Sydney Opera House (2006) Honour Bound Programme Notes.
Tait, Peta (2002) Performing Emotions: Gender, Bodies, Spaces, in Chekhov's Drama And Stanislavski's Theatre, Aldershot ; Burlington Vt., Ashgate.
Version 1.0 (2006) The Wages Of Spin
Woodhead, Cameron (2006) The Wages
Of Spin (Review). The Age. www.theage.com.au/news/arts
Tessa Needham completed Bachelor of Arts
(Theatre Theory and Practice) and Bachelor of Performance, Theory and
Practice (Honours) degrees at the University of Western Sydney, Australia.
While undertaking these courses she participated in various student
productions, including Awaiting Gravity, a one-woman show she
wrote, directed and performed in 2003. Tessa is currently researching
for a Doctor of Philosophy degree at the University of Western Sydney,
exploring the phenomenon of projection as an approach to discuss the
transformative potential of provocative performance. A major part of
her thesis is the performance project Bodily, a solo work she
produced in 2006.