High Performance Packing Tape was originally programmed for the 2020 Adelaide Festival, but the season was cancelled due to performer injury. Collaborating artists Lee Wilson, Skye Gellmann, Timothy Ohl, Mirabelle Wouters, Mickie Quick and Phil Downing have returned with a production that is stress-inducing to watch and no doubt just as terrifying to execute.
Using ready-made materials in ways their makers never intended, performing artist Gellmann pushes things to the limit in a strange but compelling display of strength and agility. Many of the materials used in the work are commonplace items we all have in our own homes, such as cardboard boxes, elastic bands, box cutters and, of course, packing tape.
Two large triangular frames formed from tubular metal scaffolding are raised to create the support for a DIY highwire – the setting for a sequence of impressive (and alarming) physical feats.
This is theatre that incorporates circus skills and movement with intense focus. There is humour to offer periodic relief from the tension built watching Gellmann endure ordeals we are well aware could end in a trip to hospital.
At one point, an improvised safety suit (a combination of bubble wrap and a milk crate) offers protection from blades and a flailing metal tape measure. More than once the image of spider and prey is evoked, with actions suggesting the weaving of a web or the struggle to escape after becoming trapped within it. There are suspension elements with a nod to shibari (Japanese rope bondage), employing the contents of the stationery cupboard rather than elegant cords.
Phil Downing’s soundscape integrates amplified noises from stage with other audio samples to produce an industrial feel. It’s very effective at creating a sense of unease and anticipation.
In the series of apparently pointless chores punctuated by moments of satisfaction, terror and exhilaration, the work explores our need for risk as a contrast to the mundanity of everyday life. There are repetitive actions and the continuous snap and crackle of the tape as it stretches towards its capacity. As the artist struggles with seemingly pointless endeavours, there is beauty in the determined persistence and in the release when each aim is achieved.
By the end, the physical effect on the body is evident, with red marks left by tape clearly visible on Gellmann’s skin. Workplace health and safety representatives may require sedation after this show (assuming they make it to the end of the performance without running screaming from the theatre).
Be aware that this performance features loud noises, smoke effects and nudity.
High Performance Packing Tape is playing at Main Theatre (AC Arts) until March 14 as part of the 2021 Adelaide Festival.
Read more Adelaide Festival stories and reviews here.
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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.