Sydney Festival Review: Huff is bold and unsettling (Performances until 28 January)

Native Earth Performing Arts’ Sydney Festival offering, Huff, is arresting, confronting, and oddly comedic. Immensely talented writer and performer, Cliff Cardinal, ensures the audience is continually unsettled, and you will find yourself laughing at circumstances that are far from funny. If you’re looking for a feel-good night out, safely ensconced behind the theatrical fourth wall, this is not it. But as an experiment in physical storytelling and audience alienation, Huff is deserving of your time.

Over the course of an intense 70 minutes, Cardinal shines a spotlight on an Indigenous family living on a Canadian reservation. Viewed primarily through the eyes of Wind, a teenager and the middle of three brothers, we are introduced to the family, their failings and their desperate attempts to find joy in suffocating circumstances. If you think it sounds bleak, you’d be right.

Huff is primarily a show about escaping reality. For Wind, this reality is as harsh and cold as the northern Canadian winter. One tool he and his brothers use to remove themselves from the world is to ‘huff’ solvents, a practise that is sadly all too common in displaced Indigenous communities. But there is much, much more that will shock and unnerve the audience in this performance than the mere act of sniffing some petrol. As Cardinal himself says, if you’re easily offended, don’t come.

Admonitions aside, it is worth seeing this show just for Cardinal’s virtuosic physical performance. He portrays literally dozens of characters in Huff, ranging from familiar human archetypes to omnipotent animals and even invisible elements (the character of Smell is particularly crafty). For each, he adopts distinct bodily attributes, switching abruptly between them in a kind of ritualistic dance.

And even though some of the characters border on melodramatic (and despite one, inadvisable attempt at an Australian accent), Cardinal still manages to ignite empathy within his audience. In Huff, we see a glimpse of a world helplessly shackled by the burden of the past and staring bleakly into a future over which our heroes have little control. Hope has well and truly left the building and you can’t help but feel bad about it.

Cardinal performs this multitude of roles on an almost bare stage, with a few carefully curated props to help him along. Having pretty much just a black box to work with, and a narrative that drifts in and out of reality, location clues are left to lighting designer, Michelle Ramsay. She executes smartly and with relative simplicity – there’s nothing overly cute or technical at play here.

The soundscape designed by Alex Williams is interesting, if a little clunky. The computer game effects are very funny, for example, but other noises seem to burst unceremoniously into the action rather than support it. Given the style of the show, however, this may very well be intentional.

At the directorial hands of Karin Randoja, there is something decidedly Brechtian about Huff. Cardinal begins by putting himself in actual physical danger, immediately demanding that the audience do not settle in for a passive experience. The first five minutes of this show will literally leave you breathless. Frequently breaking the fourth wall, Cardinal teases out a live response from the audience while simultaneously drawing them into the story. He gives you the feeling that perhaps you can influence the outcome foretold at the start of the show. Perhaps. And then there’s the tomato sauce – people in the front row be prepared!

Despite this didactic theatrical approach, Cardinal is careful to impress on his audience that he does not have any answers; this is a story, in which he is simply telling it ‘like it is’. That said, it is hard not to look for some kind of moral or way forward for the real characters at the heart of Huff. Be warned, you probably won’t walk out of the theatre feeling good, but you will have plenty to think about.

Canada’s Native Earth Performing Arts company presents Huff, playing at the Seymour Centre until 28th January. For tickets, visit the Sydney Festival website.

You can also check out our interview with Cliff Cardinal here.

The reviewer attended opening night on Tuesday 24th January.

Photo credit Akipari