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  • Flora Gosling

Review: Burnt Out (Assembly Roxy)

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

It's funny how little focus is put on the consequences of climate change. In theatre, and the wider discussion of the climate crisis generally, the focus is often drawn to actions. Actions of the past, present, and future. We point to examples of natural disasters and melting icecaps and swear there will be more in the future if nothing is done, most discussions are centred around what we have done to create this problem, and what will we have to sacrifice to stop it from getting worse. In Penny Chivas’ dance-theatre piece Burnt Out, the attention is drawn to some of the very real and personal experiences of the climate crisis, namely the wildfires of Australia.

We are told the details of the Black Summer of 2019-2020; buildings filled with smoke around the clock, water shortages, and coal being used to address the smoke-filled air. We are also told about her father, a well-known environmental geochemist, who ensured she knew about climate change from as early as the 1980s. But these are the details on which the performance is built, rather than the meat of the show itself.

Photo Credit: Brian Hartley

Chivas has a unique approach to storytelling – little is spoken and more emphasis is placed on the connection between the soundscape and her body. She sings in such a way that seems to use her whole chest, and dances in such a way that uses all the length and strength of her limbs. It creates a sense of power and an acute awareness of her body and its capacities. The performance is a blend of moments of stillness and moments of panic, and when she enacts her experiences such as witnessing a completely black sky, we can sense the physical strain on her body and better understand the toll it is taking.

That reading of the performance is one of many possibilities; Burnt Out is abstract and open to interpretation from many angles. It could be said, however, that as a performance it is ungenerous to its audience as to how to read it. Some parts are very recognisable, such as a sequence of Chivas repetitively following the “stop, drop, and roll” procedure, but not all are so explicit. It is certainly emotive, but it may leave an audience unsure about what they just witnessed.

Whether this is a flaw or simply a quality of Burnt Out is up for debate, but audiences should not expect to be walked through the performance. Indeed, like the landscape of Australia, it is too broad to be followed in one direction. Instead, it is an invitation to witness a powerfully performed expression of Chivas’ experiences, and the experiences of her country. Four stars.

Whispers from the Crowd:

It was good. Quite moving. It was interesting when she said how they were using coal to purify the air, I didn’t know that. It’s very important right now.


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