It’s funny the way by pure accident shows with similar themes can end up being on at the same time. In some cases it even happens that the same show ends up being done within a short period of each other. In my first year of uni, I think there were three Virginia Woolfs going on in Australia at the same time. In my second year, it seemed as if the broader theatre scene was looking to our university for inspiration, as just after we did productions of Titus and Antigone, Bell Shakespeare and Belvoir followed suit. This year, it seems that after however many years of absence there are not one, not two, but THREE Howard Barker plays happening in the region (again, two of them are UOW productions). Now, after only having seen Tusk Tusk at the Wharf a couple of weeks ago, I found myself at another play about teenagers. Oh and the same play was JUST performed in Perth.
Apart from the main characters being troubled youths however, there isn’t much else that ties the two plays together. Whereas Polly Stenham is interested in the failure of middle-class families, David Greig’s poetic play is about a couple of individuals with very different backgrounds. “Stag” Lee (John Shrimpton) comes from a troubled family. With a depressed mother, an uninterested would be stepfather, and no biological father in sight, he is pretty much left to his own devices. This leads to many an altercation with the police and family services. All you need to know about Lee is that he never takes of his hat. It’s embroidered with an image of a proud male deer which as well as looking like an advertisement for a low-carb Toohey’s product, is also where young Lee he gets his nickname. Silent Leila on the other hand is the daughter of migrants, we think, she does after all dress a bit like a Muslim. No one is really sure, all they know is that she never talks. The two are brought together by coincidence, and bound together by crisis. Then follows a relatively standard coming of age story complete with a near-death experience, a hard-working montage, and a shocking revelation.
Told through narration, the play is essentially four actors in a room telling you Leila and Lee’s story, although there are clear characters throughout, there are times when it is actors describing action rather than actors playing actions. This allows a certain freedom of character, with the two older cast members moving fluidly in and out of the various adult roles that have an impact on the lives of the two young protagonists. This narrative style means that the language holds a lot of power in the text. Action is not always necessary for it is often perfectly described with language and to try and represent it would only take away from that description. However, there is always a balance that has to be struck between the narration and the acting to ensure that emotional investment is kept and Greig’s text finds this balance pretty well throughout the play, although there are times when you wonder why you’re being told things rather than just shown them. But it does offer its own beautiful moments where the characters take control of how they are depicted.
Originally written for a youth theatre company, there is a certain immaturity that remains in this script, which is at times tiresome, but also works to the advantage of the main roles. So often when scripts are written for teenagers by adults, the teenagers are either wise beyond their years, or caricatures of teenage angst. Here however, I found them quite realistic. Sure, they are extremes of teenage behaviour that are explored, but they also hit the nerve right on the head with a lot of the little details, starting with Lee’s refusal to take off his hat (the amount of fights that people got into in high school over people stealing their hats was ridiculous).
The cast is quite strong with the two young leads in Estasy and Shrimpton finding a beautiful chemistry together, brewing with hormonal desire. Their older counterparts in Danielle Cormack (who I can’t help but mention used to be in Xena) and Kenneth Moraleda bring an equally playful energy to the small stage.
The most exciting aspect of this production which I probably should have mentioned by now is the physical language that the creative team have brought to the work. Much talked about in the promotional material, but not overbearing at all in the final work, director Susanna Dowling and choreographer Johanna Puglisi have worked with a soundtrack by sound designer Ekrem Mulayim to bring a dance-like physical fluidity to the work. The result is some beautiful illuminations of the poetic text. I found that this attempt to physicalise the subtext of the work was particularly effective for Leila’s character. Given that she is such a reserved presence, there was more to learn about her through this process. When Estasy and Cormack work together this technique is especially beautiful. This physical approach was best used when it was at its most removed from plot points. Occasionally it was used to simply indicate action or place and this was when it sometimes proved unnecessary. However, overall, I was delighted by the subtle investigations into the text which the movement highlighted.
Oh wow, I just remembered that I forgot to mention that there is regular A-Ha referencing in this play. A definite positive. Kenneth Moraleda's heatfelt rendition of "Take On Me" was truly a highlight.