SYDNEY FESTIVAL: ICE CREAM PARADISE
With its Australian Premiere set for the Sydney Festival this January, theatre company Indian Ink’s new existential stage show Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream promises everything from immersive sound-design, a Bollywood-disco number and puppetry, through to laughs and thought-provoking, mind-blowing musings on eternity. Inspired by Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death, the play’s co-writer and sole performer JACOB RAJAN (The Jungle and the Sea) – who describes himself as a “paradise-is-here-on-earth kinda guy” – took time out from pondering the afterlife to answer some of 2SER’s big questions.
2SER: Given some of the play’s weighted themes, how would you describe your own current relationship with mortality?
JR: I guess the older you get, the more reminders you receive that you have a “use-by date”. Friends, family, pets seem to die with more frequency. Of course, the beautiful thing about that is, if you don’t spend your time avoiding looking at your mortality, it can actually sharpen your focus and intensify your experience of life. This life is so incredibly brief. Comically brief. It’s a cosmic joke how absurdly brief it is. We have to laugh! …Indian Ink shows are always funny but they are mischievously funny because we think good comedy is actually grounded in truth and pain. We call it the “serious laugh”. The custard pie in the face is funny at first but then hurts when we realise the custard is made of our hopes and fears and humanity.
2SER: What was it about Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death that resonated with you and inspire the writing of your own show? Did reading it change any of your beliefs?
JR: In a nutshell, Becker’s thesis is that humans are the only animals with a conscious understanding that we are going to die. And that unpalatable truth is the unseen engine that drives every good, bad, wonderful or shameful thing we do as a species. Art, culture, religion, science, money, politics – you name it, they are all, at their core, buffers against our dreaded mortality. I don’t [know] about challenging or changing my beliefs, but writing this play has certainly made me view the world in a different way.
In the process of writing a play we often look to a myth to underpin the work. Myths have endured because they contain essential truths within them and it’s our job as theatre makers to mine those truths for all they’re worth. The myth of Gilgamesh is the oldest recorded story. Discovered on a stone tablet in Syria, it centres around a king who seeks immortality after witnessing the death of a close friend. As often happens, when you immerse yourself in the research you become lost for a while, you go down rabbit holes and dead ends but occasionally something like a sign post appears. Ernest Becker’s… The Denial of Death was our sign post. Justin Lewis (co-writer and director) stumbled on it by accident, but as soon as he did we had a new lens with which to view not only the imaginative world we created but also the view points of the characters within that world.
2SER: Performing the show sounds like quite a work out for you – playing as you do, seven characters. How do you prepare yourself beforehand?
JR: I arrive at the theatre two hours before opening. I do full physical and vocal warm up. I also drill all the sound queues (68 of them). Our composer, David Ward, has created an intricate soundscape and a lot of the mime I do is synchronised with realistic sound. It blows the audience’s mind but it also takes a bit of practice to get it right.
2SER: We’re intrigued that a one-man show includes a Bollywood musical number. Tell us a bit about this ingredient and how as a solo performer you pull that off.
JR: The central character is thrown back to the glory days of his youth. So yes, there is a scene that takes place in Club Sutra, Mumbai’s hippest nightclub. I’m not sure I “pull off” the dance routine but I give it a good go.
2SER: There’s also puppetry involved, tell us about that.
JR: We’re talking a life-sized, breath-taking, vulture puppet, exquisitely brought to life by master puppeteer and puppet maker, Jon Coddington. We don’t attempt to hide Jon at all but his skill is such that we are mesmerised by the vulture and six-foot Jon disappears. Indian Ink was formed on a love of mask. I think puppetry is a close cousin of mask. Something inanimate brought to life by the audience’s imagination (and the skill of the performer). The story required a vulture – we didn’t need any other prompting to give Jon a call.
2SER: You’re currently starring in Belvoir’s The Jungle and the Sea which sounds like a far more sombre production. Is the personal investment therefore greater or just different?
JR: It’s just different. I play multiple characters in The Jungle and the Sea show too, but I’m joined on stage by seven other South Asian actors and two incredible classical Indian Carnatic musicians. There are different demands. For a start, it’s performed on a revolving stage that is in constant motion at varying speeds. I personally have 15 costume changes (also at varying speeds!) and it’s three hours long with two intervals.
2SER: Indian Ink is based in New Zealand but you’re obviously here in Australia quite a bit. What’s the thing you miss most about New Zealand when you’re in Sydney?
JR: I miss the usual things: the dog, the wife, the kids, my mum – not necessarily in that order.
Paradise or the Impermanence of Ice Cream runs from January 17 – 22 at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Tickets from Sydney Festival
Interview by: Paris Pompor