How to recreate the history of humankind in only a few hours

“We wanted to recreate the history of humankind but with a space of ten metres wide by eight metres and a time scale of one hour and a half.”

If you’re an evolutionist, then you believe things took time. We’re talking millions of years. If you’re a creationist, then you believe the old robed dude upstairs knocked the whole lot out in a week. But what if you only had 80-minutes to create an entire new world?
The question appealed to French artists Halory Goerger and Antoine Defoort, who wanted to create a world from scratch. “Basically there would be nothing on stage at the beginning of the piece. Literally nothing – an empty space, black, no light. The basic rule was that we would, the characters of the piece, would have to discover or invent every item, every element, every feature, that is necessary to make the play,” Defoort says.
This means the basics of a theatre show – like the space, the lights, even language – would all have to evolve. Words don’t come at first, they find other ways to express themselves before discovering they can also do this with their mouth; and when they do speak, it’s in French, although there are English subtitles. “We start from nothing and we end up building a small scale civilisation that allows us to make the play happen,” he says.
The result is the international cult hit Germinal, an “ontological vaudeville” according to the New York Times in a glowing review, which described the show as being “delightful” and “a whole lot of fun and deeply affecting”. First performed in France in 2012, it’s been touring the world ever since and is making its Australian premiere as part of the Melbourne Festival.
Germinal is not an overtly political work, says Defoort, but is akin to science fiction, in that they are using a new universe to comment on our existing, familiar one, in a playful but meaningful way. “We wanted to recreate the history of humankind but with a space of ten metres wide by eight metres and a time scale of one hour and a half and the entire population would be four people. So what would have happened if we had been living this story?”
They use this microcosm to examine human interaction, especially after the characters discover a computer. “Togetherness and how we deal with things together; and how we initiate, how we try to listen and fail, fail to listen to each other. In Germinal there’s quite a lot of those issues: where we discover a new tool, we imagine a new protocol and then we have to agree with each other as to how to use it, and do we use it or not, and what are the consequences,” says Defoort.
“I think in the Middle Ages they had the same issues but they had the one king who gets to decide for everyone, but how we decide things collectively? How do we listen to each other? Obviously, there’s a lot of work to do right now in our real world,” he says.
Defoort and Goerger are from L’Amicale De Production, a project co-operative combining visual art, music and interactive performance to create constantly shifting visions of theatre. They worked together, as both co-writers and co-directors of Germinal, and their creative process reflected the negotiations they depict onstage. “We decided to do everything together,” he says.
“We spent a lot of time talking to each other about what’s the piece and how it’s going to develop, so it was kind of like going to the shrink – one lying down and speaking and the other one taking notes and saying ‘uh-huh, go on...’” he says.
“It’s a mirror of what’s happening in the piece because we had to find tools and protocols and to settle and to imagine how to negotiate between both of us. In a way it fuelled the piece itself to be confronted with the same kind of issues.”

Germinal runs at the Malthouse Theatre from Thursday October 19 - Sunday October 22 as part of Melbourne Festival. Tickets via festival.melbourne/2017/.