Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Harry Harlow Project

Written and performed by James Saunders
Presented by the Salamanca Arts Centre

by Stephenie Cahalan

There is one deep flaw in the inclusion of The Harry Harlow Project in the Salamanca Arts Centre’s Mobile States Festival of New Australian Performance: it only runs for two performances. There should be at least ten.

Written and performed by Melbourne-based James Saunders, the performance is engrossing from the first second, drawing the audience into a slightly uncomfortable relationship with the lone, innocuous-looking character on stage. The house lights stay up for easily the first ten minutes of the performance, making the audience not just observers, but companions in the bland room that could be an office, could be a cell in an institution, or could be a bedroom.

Harry Harlow was a groundbreaking psychologist who, through his scientific experiments using baby monkeys, taught us what we now take as given around the effect of touch and nurturing in child rearing, behaviour, development, depression, neglect and abuse. His findings have shaped modern psychology yet his methods were cruel; reminiscent of the Enlightenment days’ prevailing assumption that animals are non-sentient beings. Saunders’ portrayal of Harlow shows the blurring lines between brilliance and madness and suggests that in Harlow’s case the two were enmeshed.

Saunders is alone on stage , yet this is by no means a monologue as the skilled use of Harry's voice recordings create multiple personalities, commentators and companions. His performance is slick in its physicality and delivery, and our introduction to Harlow’s Pulitzer Prize winning biographer Deborah Blum is simply perfect. Every element of sound, visual recording and projection is used seamlessly and is highly effective. Video artist Martin Coutts and composer and sound designer Kelly Ryall sit like two modern-day Foley artists, poised to compliment the performance, while blending perfectly into the era with staid fifties-style shirt sleeves and oiled hair.

The Harry Harlow Project is exciting, satisfying, challenging new theatre at its finest and all credit to SAC for bringing it to Hobart. There is one more performance tonight on Thursday, August 18 at the Peacock Theatre so cancel any other plans to make sure you catch it.

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