at Summerhall, Tuesday 6th August 2013
*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*
To avoid confusion, Bonanza isn’t really a piece of theatre. It involved no live performers, and is more a documentary film presented in an experimental way. But it’s brilliant all the same. Important to clarify that first, just so no one is disappointed.
Near to the ground in the Main Hall in Summerhall, five screens line up in a row, like a split widescreen. Above, a town made out of plastic, spanning the stage, hangs from the ceiling, like a floating model village. The film then begins, switching focus between each screen but continuing different shots on others, allowing our eyes to flit between to see what’s going on elsewhere in this town.
Bonanza is an old mining town in Colorado which used to (according to one of the residents) house 25,000 people. Now, only seven people live there permanently. The far left screen follows Ed and Gail, then moving along we have the town priest, Mary (whose husband Roger has recently passed away), two new female inhabitants and then Mike. They each have their own stories to tell about the town, and when they talk the replica of their house is lit on the scene above. When they’re not talking, we can watch them as they go about their days in silence, as they read, drive and chop wood.
This element is the reason this differs from other documentary films. Though the general ‘story’ follows the same contours of an edited factual film, our ability to watch them in silence makes all the difference, and makes the piece far more epic in its scope. At any one time, it feels as if we are watching the entirety of the town, God-like.
Throughout the 70 minutes, it becomes clear that there are tensions in the town. The local government is ran by non-local residents and newbies aren’t particularly welcome. The structures of a more prosperous time remain, but they are no longer appropriate to the present context. We watch as a once bustling town, where miners would come to “Hit the Bonanza”, struggles to cope with the fact the dreams it promised were never met.
But it’s also a rumination on being alone and the so-called Great Outdoors. Various houses are owned by families who only visit in summer, but those who live here all year round have a special connection to the land and a remarkable humour. Mary jokes about her husband’s ashes being stored in the car and Mike jokes about his failed marriage from the top of a mountain. Whilst the rest of us are connected to the internet 24/7, they have to phone friends just to check the world hasn’t ended.
It’s all accompanied by an upbeat guitar soundtrack by Peter van Laerhoven, which gives a feeling of drive to the whole thing. And towards the end what we see on the screens begins to interact with the miniature village, as lights flicker on and we think we can spot miniature people in the windows. But though this lifestyle feels removed from our own with its small-town politics and loneliness, we can connect far more than expected. “It’s the world”, as one resident says, “in microcosm”.