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Remember this: startling memory games at the Sydney Festival

I Guess if the Stage Exploded … a chance to delve into the fundamentally mysterious nature of memory-making. Laura Montag/Sydney Festival

There’s a singular kind of hush that comes over an audience when the figure on stage takes off her shoes and steps into a bucket of flour. But this hush is even more apparent as the actor, now flour-footed and leaving a tooth-fairy trail of incriminating white footsteps, circles the stage. As she does so, the disembodied voice of a neuroscientist begins to discuss the making and preservation of memory.

Welcome to the surreal world of Sylvia Rimat, creator and performer of I Guess if the Stage Exploded …, currently playing at the Sydney Festival. The point of the production, Rimat tells us, is to show us something we won’t forget. The strange and wonderful occurrences of the next hour are all crafted with this singular aim in mind.

The work’s startling title comes from one of the many scholars Rimat consulted about memory and the desire to be remembered. When asked to imagine a moment on stage an audience would never forget, one replied: “I guess if the stage exploded, I wouldn’t forget that.”

For Rimat this seems less an anxiety than a provocation, a chance to delve into the fundamentally mysterious nature of memory-making. She links her desire for her performance to be remembered with our own longing for individuality; our secret hope to be remembered after we’re gone.

This conscription of our desires happens early on.

Sylvia Rimat in I guess if the stage exploded. Laura Montag/Sydney Festival

Once my hand was stamped by a peculiarly insistent usher, I entered the theatre to find a pen and two sheets of paper on my chair. Stepping out of the flour bucket, Rimat took her place at a microphone and asked us to remember a series of audience members, who tromped out from backstage and took their seats while Rimat read short descriptions of them off papers produced from red envelopes.

Descriptions ranged from the banal – “Welcome, William, who is Captain Morgan” – to the bizarre: “Welcome Jimmy, who is celebrated in the kitchens of Camperdown.” It was impossible to tell if these descriptions were written by the audience members themselves, or a scripted part of the performance. The barrier between performer and audience, production and spectator, was suddenly porous – the stage had exploded.

But it didn’t stop here. After listing an increasingly outlandish series of events that might help us remember her performance, including the appearance of a live elephant – a winking reference to this pachyderm’s legendary powers of recall – Rimat launched into a kind of mock lecture on how to remember, a series of numbered lessons appearing on a screen over the stage.

We were asked to take one of our pieces of paper, describe ourselves as we would like to be remembered, and then throw these descriptions onto the stage. The stage was suddenly carpeted with memorials in the shape of screwed-up balls of paper.

Pausing only to refresh the flour on her feet, Rimat selected a series of these and read them out; the person described was then asked to stand up. (I found myself curiously jealous of those who had been identified, hoping that Rimat would pick my paper next. I was, I realised, anxious to be remembered.) One of those standing was then asked to come onstage, sit in an armchair, and offered a drink: “Captain Morgan’s rum”.

This was my first inkling of the way the production repeats itself, linking back to apparently innocuous details, simulating the circular operation of memory, like the trails of white footprints Rimat leaves around the stage.

I Guess if the Stage Exploded … Laura Montag/Sydney Festival

These links and repetitions continue in a series of Skype conversations that appear on the screen above the stage. It’s impossible to tell whether these crosses to Skype are live or pre-recorded – they are, Rimat explains, “from the past, the present, and the future”.

The production explodes out in time and space, to an airfield in Berlin, a tent and, miraculously, a celebration for Jimmy (remember him?) in a kitchen in Camperdown. Rimat circles the stage, conjuring up stranger and stranger effects and episodes to help us remember, even donning a lampshade and performing a hilariously awkward dance – before producing the mascot or emblem of the show: a live and exquisitely beautiful boobook owl.

This is a surreal, funny and curiously moving piece of theatre, breathlessly economical in posing its questions and endlessly inventive in staging its dilemmas.

In the hands of a lesser performer, such a production might have been tedious, or worse, teeth-grindingly whimsical, but Rimat is never less than convincing: companionable and delightfully wry, utterly relaxed on her exploding stage, a happy captain charting us through the straits of memory, rum in hand.

I left the theatre feeling elated, amused and curiously moved – determined to remember everything; already beginning to forget. It was only when I reached for my phone that I noticed the owl stamp on the back of my hand.

I Guess if the Stage Exploded plays at the Sydney Festival until January 18. Details here.

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