REVIEW: Peacemongers by The People – Darebin Arts Centre

In 2020, The People – an artists collective headed by Morgan Rose and Katrina Cornwell – started to write a show about bigotry and discrimination. They made a list of all the things they hated, which included racism, misogyny and Zoom. Bu they’d be stuck on Zoom for a while, because lockdowns in Melbourne lasted for a long time.

At some point (the group was rigorous with documenting their process, though I wasn’t taking notes), the group decided instead of fixating on things they hated, they wanted to create and describe a utopia – a perfect world they could work towards and put on stage. In 2021, or 2022, or maybe, finally, in 2023. You might have noticed, it’s 2024 now.

Rose and Cornwell worked together with a group of artists, including Sonya Suares, Samuel Gaskin, Kate Hood, İbrahim Halaçoğlu and Zachary Pidd to hash out the borders and boundaries of this new society where inclusion is in and bigotry is out. They struggled with the concept of perfection and society and how to remake the world into something that loved love and banished hate.

Peacemongers (working title) is the end result. Though, it’s not really the end because there’s still lists to make and answers to find. It’s really hard making a utopia, right? Even if you’re starting with the best intentions.

Staged at Darebin Arts Centre with a set by Nathan Burmeister that evokes the ruins of classical architecture and the dance floor of a cheap wedding reception venue, long tables are set up on three sides of the room where the audience is seated for dinner and a show.

The dinner, provided by Moon Rabbit, is delicious – a chicken option and a vegan option, served one after the other, so the audience is left to exchange if we don’t get what we want or need. It’s one of the subtle forms of conflict and negotiation we were subjected to throughout the night.

It started with a Tim Tam versus Mint Slice vote and later we were asked to judge whether musical theatre was a worthwhile artform. See, deciding what is in and what is out is a difficult decision – especially when the choice is binary.

The show is mostly a look at how this show was devised, which was clearly a struggle given the circumstances of the world at the time and the personal commitments of some of the participants – Sam needed to go to Bali and Kate got an offer to be in a show at Queensland Theatre Company.

It’s partly a musical, because songs can deliver emotion in a way that text-based theatre can’t. It’s partly a civics lesson, with a mock trial of a religious baker who won’t make a cake for a gay wedding.

I struggled with this example, since it’s quintessentially an American story about First Amendment rights (cake is speech!). I figure, if you want to make a perfect world, maybe the United States isn’t a great starting point. Australia and the US had completely different responses to the pandemic, so starting a utopia here or there would be entirely different propositions. But as my partner pointed out, if you’re going to start a new world, you have to bring along the people starting from way behind.

Remaking society is a tricky proposition, even when you’re starting with a group of good people. But then, what are you meant to do with the bigots? Banish them? Vanish them?

The experience of Peacemongers on opening night was comforting because the room was filled with like-minded creative people who know the struggle of creating shows while being sensitive to other people’s experience. Early on in the night, for example, we are given an example of different lighting states and noise levels to be expected in the show, which would be super helpful for any neurodivergent audience members.

It was also fun to make quick decisions about what we wanted to bring along to the next world. We decided to keep fingering, fucking and Fever (the song), while tossing out Fever (the symptom). We were good with edging and after a stumble by the person on our table being quizzed, we got rid of Eugenics quick smart. The People are going through the alphabet, so different shows in the season will be questioned about different things. Ashley Olsen is already out, but what will be decided when Mary-Kate is up for election or elimination?

There’s a lot of good and knotty questions in the show about representation and inclusion and whether or not it’s more dramatically satisfying to depict a utopia or show the struggle to make one. It’s a notion close to my speculative fiction-writing heart. Watching other artists argue about it or try to find a way to accept one another’s offers without escalating it was a real joy.

I do wonder what an audience of people who don’t make theatre will think about the machinations of this show that isn’t a show. But, for me, it positions itself so well as a mix of immersive show, site-specific performance and a cabaret spectacle, that you can enjoy it on an aesthetic level without having to pigeon-hole it.

For all the theatricality of Rachel Lee’s gorgeous lighting and Justin Gardam’s evocative sound design and the exciting music score by Zachary Pidd, there was something so elegant in listening to the actors speak, while the audience’s spoons and forks clattered against their bowls while we ate and watched – fascinated by where we’d go next.

Peacemongers is thoughtful and generous with its ideas and offers. It felt great to be in a room with smart people tackling challenging ideas. And the idea of the audience being able to participate in the conversation is vital to making this show work. If you’re going to make a new world, you have to try to bring everyone along.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Peacemongers runs until May 5th (and you’ll be asked about your dietary requirements when you book)

Photos by Darren Gill