KING. Shaun Parker & Company, Sydney, February 28, 2023

Shaun Parker & Company’s work never fails to lodge itself tenaciously in the memory. I think of This Show is About People from 2007, Am I (2016) and Happy as Larry (2013) in particular and KING will be another. It’s not a new piece, having premiered in 2019, but has returned to Sydney appositely as part of WorldPride. Next stop, Europe. 

First let’s unpack the title, with its emphatic capital letters. If Parker’s 2007 work was about a range of people, this latest one is specifically about people with XY chromosomes: the male of the species as king of the jungle, as stickler for social norms, as violent pack animal, as predator and prey. And, in the radiant person of Bulgarian composer and onstage singer Ivo Dimchev, a person capable of sensitivity and creative expression.

Ivo Dimchev, centre, with the cast of KING. Photo by Prudence Upton

It wasn’t all that long ago that the pecking order was abundantly clear. Men were in charge and there were assumed and entrenched ways of behaving. Too bad if you didn’t like it. Very bad if you were different. These currents run through KING.

Dimchev starts the show gently with a song and finishes it emphatically with a forceful gesture. He is ever-present, a narrator of sorts in this presentation of male pressures and ways of being. His voice is exceptionally beautiful as it ranges from warm baritone to ethereal falsetto, the glowing beauty at the top of his range often decorated with a gorgeous, shimmering trill. 

It’s not too much to say almost all of KING’s emotional heft comes from Dimchev with his striking, androgynous figure, that mesmerising voice that contains multiple worlds, his often fragile songs and the work’s splendid instrumental score. Parker otherwise takes a quasi-documentary approach to KING in that it has an observational quality when it comes to the movement. The men on stage, Dimchev apart, do not invite intimacy. Whether they are a group of near automatons, an argumentative rabble or a threatening mob, they are there to be watched and examined. 

The curtains open on a lush riot of greenery in the background (Parker co-designed with horticultural consultant Penny Hunstead) and a fancy chandelier. The setting cleverly summons simultaneous thoughts of an up-market tropical resort and a jungle threatening to entangle all in its inexorable path. And there’s something that sounds like a ship’s horn in Dimchev’s score. So there’s opulence, mystery, danger and a whiff of hedonism.

Toby Derrick (front) with the cast of KING. Photo by Prudence Upton

Into this paradise – or perhaps prison – come 10 men, dressed in dinner suits. They are super-serious, regimented and rather pompous as they move in formation or undertake tricky acrobatics without blinking an eyelid or seeking the approval of the audience. Even when clicking their fingers and shimmying as if in a nightclub they are blank slates. Conformity has never looked this entertaining, at least from where we are sitting.

There are darker things to come. At one point a formation for nine of the men ingeniously evokes the mirrored pattern of an ink-blot test with all that implies while the 10th man, now separated from the group, moves sensuously to Dimchev’s sultry music. “I look at you and I sigh,” Dimchev sings, but KING is about to move on to more troubling basic urges. Dimchev takes T.S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men as inspiration for a song that precedes a breakdown of superficial civilities. Men strip off their shirts and behave aggressively; one (Toby Derrick) is fully naked and is something of a leader, controller, demi-god, whatever. There’s a lot going on here. Fascinatingly, Derrick’s resplendent nakedness brings with it some sense of innocence, of rebirth, transcendence even. But we are somewhere in the vicinity of the Garden of Eden, undoubtedly, so that state of grace is not going to last. 

The cast of KING. Photo by Prudence Upton

So far so wonderful. Parker’s deep affinity with music is again a fruitful driving force (I recall once more This Show is About People, which featured music by Mara and Llew Kiek who like Dimchev are steeped in the music of Bulgaria). KING’s choreography is muscular and impeccably performed and Parker could not be more on the money in wanting to think about masculinity today in all its shades and what forces shape and challenge men. 

There is a caveat. What Parker shows he shows exceptionally well, but look under the gleaming bonnet and KING reveals little that isn’t already known about attitudes by and to men. Was it too much to hope KING would arouse a little more anger, faith or passion? That isn’t to deny the value in showing what is rather than exploring what might be. There are people who are desperate for representation, for acknowledgement of their selves and their struggles. That, KING does strikingly well. 

KING is at the Seymour Centre, Sydney, until March 4.

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