Jo Randerson's Banging Cymbal Clanging Gong has a 15-year history. The Wellingtonian theatre-maker's iconic solo play is something of a personal manifesto, delivered by a punky, volatile barbarian warrior who claims to be the last of her line. Ahead of a revival season at Basement Theatre later this week, Randerson describes her motivations for making the piece, and explains how it's evolved since.
I started making this show in 2001 when I was working in Denmark, my ancient homeland (my people came from a town called Randers). I was at the Odin Teatret, an inspiring, respected theatre company who were very active. I was scheduled to do a showing of my work but I was nervous because everyone seemed so serious, so prepared, so ‘crafted’. Already in the workshops it had been pointed out how loud, how uncontrolled - this might sound strange – how much ‘bigger’ we New Zealanders were than the European actors. I felt like Gandalf and they were a bunch of elves. Except that in my version of the movie, Gandalf had very low self-confidence and did not yet know what powers he had.
This (video above) was some of the work that they were showing. I was fascinated, but I knew that I wanted to make something very different to this, something louder and wilder. And so I did a performance of something quite different, and it got a very bemused response, and I went home feeling like a failure, that I had done it ‘wrong’. That the Europeans knew how to do theatre and I didn’t.
And so I took all of this sensation and I shoved it into the next draft of my show. My character, the Barbarian (the uncivilized one), accepted her ‘wrongness’, her lack of skill, her simplicity, her uncontrolled anger. She got face paint, she got a strong Danish/French/Russian accent...it's not a pure accent, it’s a mongrel accent. In the show, she stomps around on stage, she drinks (she used to smoke on stage until the laws changed) and she also plays Bach and reads Robert Frost – but ‘not very well’. She knows she is not viewed as a winner by society. But she has her own way of winning, and I think she knows this deep down.
The show is about looking for kin, trying to reclaim your heritage, in all of its glory and tragedy.
But she’s lonely, the show is about looking for kin, trying to reclaim your heritage, in all of its glory and tragedy. My character started reclaiming the value of her position as 'less skilled', and investigating the heritage of a mongrel line - the bastards. My people were Vikings originally, and I was seeking an understanding of the place of chaos and destruction alongside order and civility. And above all, I was trying to occupy a position of difference without compromise, and she (I) was struggling to contain her emotions so she could survive in a world that appeared to think differently.
After its first spate of performances in the early 2000s, I had two children, and I stopped performing the show. Sometimes, having just put the kids to sleep, I would race off to watch students performing Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong. (Young women identify with the text I think because most of the monologues they're usually offered are passive and responsive, about weak, upset women having breakdowns. They tell me it’s a rare chance to perform a strong and wild female character.) At this point in my life, heavily involved in mothering and wondering if I had I had made the wrong career choice, I would watch the Barbarian and think, "Who is that wild and confident person? I don’t recognize her."
But then when my eldest son was about four, I felt her coming back. I got my hair cut in a Mohawk again, and found her accent returning. The Barbarian smashed her way on to stage again two years ago, prior to the general election, and since then people have been asking her to keep performing. So she does. She’s older now, and she has definitely found some kin - which has affected the show. She’s less despondent. I think she has found some ways to create change, rather than feel defeated. But her raging heart is my cornerstone and it’s the name which I gave my company and as time goes on I find more and more people are relating to the wild freedom and sense of injustice that she shouts about.
Banging Cymbal, Clanging Gong, presented as a solo double bill with Hayley Sproull's Vanilla Miraka (which you can read about here);21-24 September, Basement Theatre. basementtheatre.co.nz