The soul of Swenson

Heavenly Bodies and Beautiful Souls (Pentimento Productions)

Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre

November 18 – 28

Gold Matilda Award Winner, Sven Swenson is a masterful storyteller, so it is appropriate that there would be much justified anticipation for the playwright’s latest shows. Continuing on some years after his mid-2015 triumph, “Tiptoe”, the latest inflection of the Sundial series sees the action moved from Waterford to South East Asia. The two independent but intertwined real-time narratives “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” give audiences further glimpse into the lives of that particular family over four generations and, in doing so, provide provocative portrait of human vulnerability.

A work of such contemplative theme requires a beautiful backdrop and Ray Milner’s design in “Heavenly Bodies” certainly fits the bill. The detailed staging of a Singaporean bordello room circa its 1942 fall, is lush in fabric, furniture and ornamentation, abundantly alive against the reality of the rubble and air-raid sirens of its surrounds.

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The setting is foreign to true blue Australian solider Henry Cutler (Sam Ryan). Deeply in love and loyal to his pregnant wife Ruby when forced by his fellow officers to spend an hour in comfortable company, he is just looking for conversational consideration of his predicted future as colonial cannon fodder. This is where he meets Laidie, (Regan Lynch) a young transgender woman. While their dialogue starts awkwardly, this only serves to show how story doesn’t have to just reveal itself through narrative. Indeed, silence is a significant factor in their early moments, apart from Cutty’s endearing ockerisms of ‘strewth’ and ‘chinwag’, hinting at a lack of worldliness that belies his ultimately un-bigoted country-boy outlook. Far from being jarring, however, these only serve to enhance his appeal, leading to intermission audience discussion of his affinity and hope that he might survive to tell story of the intimate encounter, as promised, to his awaiting wife.

The show is revealing in more than just its themes. But its nudity is in keeping with theatre’s essential focus on humanity and the story’s effort to present people being at their most human and therefore most vulnerable. And Lynch certainly brings a bruised humanity to the glamourous Laidie, the transsexual prostitute who has fled from hometown Adelaide in aim to find her place in the world.

Ultimately, however, this is a show about words and ideas more than standout performances. As always, sensitivity and intelligence leap from Swenson’s script; his exquisite writing is at the story’s soul, lingering long after its expression often by a hint at narrative through threads of character conversation for audiences to piece together, perhaps from experience of the other works within the series.

The second story, set two generations forward in time in nearby Bangkok, features similar multilayered themes, however, is much more difficult to watch. The confrontational Act Two work features three characters on death row, in reflection of their fate as result of a drug transaction gone wrong. David (Zachary Boulton) and his intellectually disabled brother Justin (Peter Norton) are descendants from the Cutty of “Heavenly Bodies”. Joined by dare-devil Bethany (Casey Woods), they can communicate with each other only from within their single cells.

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In contrast to the plush appeal of its predecessor story, “Beautiful Souls” is a sterile and cold aesthetic experience, sparse in its establishment of setting, with effective use of three raised platforms, simple chain fencing and ominous nooses. The design choices only serve to make the story more difficult to endure. As the performers pace in sometimes frenetic frustration, their confined desperation is palpable. However, amongst the physical performances, comes some welcomed humour from Norton, to alleviate but never allay the effect of its shocking themes.

Despite their differences in tone, “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” both focus on ultimately nourishing themes through personal and intimate stories. The provocation of the works in combination is that they show a universality to the loneliness of fear and despair.

Any consideration of artistic merit should focus on two key questions: does the work have something to say and is it well-executed in its expression. In their perceptive exploration of humanity, “Heavenly Bodies” and “Beautiful Souls” are both of these things. Compelling in their mediation of loneliness and despair and harrowing enough to bring a tear to even the most jaded of eyes, the works intermingle as equally captivating pieces of theatre in examination of the power of the human spirit. The connection between and beyond the companion pieces makes them all the more compelling, sure to have audiences both wanting to revisit “Tiptoe” and looking forward to next year’s planned “Little Windows”.

Photos c/o – CG Photography Brisbane

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