Tense truths

Face to Face (Playlab Theatre)

Metro Arts, New Benner Theatre

March 16 – 26

“Face to Face” is a political, but also personal story. The two-hander takes a little while to get there, but when it does, it is incredibly powerful in its messaging. It starts at 11pm when a stressed-out Leila (Hannah Belanszky) arrives home to her Brisbane flat. With no milk in her fridge and pizza boxes piled by the door, it is clear that her work is her priority. Just as she is devoted to her dream of representing her community and being an inspiration to the other girls back home just like her, she is meticulous in her approach, with a whiteboard schedule that includes allocation of time for meditation. And things are only going to become more stressful with the unannounced doorstep arrival of self-proclaimed favourite niece Maddie (Lorinda Merrypor), six years after last seeing each other.

The new work from Kamilaroi playwright Emily Wells tells a touching story about two women navigating the complex effects of disconnecting from Country, and criticism from community, family and self. Clearly there’s tension and as the duo dance around the reason for Leila’s and also now Maddy’s departure from home, it takes a while for details to be forthcoming. The last thing Leila thinks she needs is to be reminded of home, as she sets about salvaging a meeting to move towards achievement of a reconciliation plan. And as she explains about its precedent, it is clear that the stubbornly ambitious hard worker walks a fine line between being an institutionalised change seeker and a sell-out in the eye of her remote country town community.  

The intimate drama is most obviously realised through its performances. Belanszky is a steadying force as the voice-of-reason Leila and Merrypor shines as the feisty Maddie, trying to figure it all out. Her dynamic performance captures her character’s crucible of conflicts between 18-year-old idealism, TikTok confidence and reconciliation of how the world works. As the pair banter back and forth about unimportant things after Maddie’s arrival and impeding departure again, there is always the loom of Leila’s work and what is still to be done from a bigger picture perspectie, which we see represented symbolically atop a series of boxes to the side of an otherwise naturalistic set.

Once the catalyst for Maddie’s disillusioned flee from her far-away home appears to become clear, things take a turn for the serious with ensuring debate about government funding and responsibility for community, heightened into one of reconciliation. This is where Wells’ script really excels, especially in its trip from politics to pathos. The dialogue is intellectual, but punctuated with the affecting honesty of simple sentiments like, “I miss her.” Particularly powerful moments come from Merrypor’s two monologues which co-directors Roxanne McDonald and Nadine McDonald-Dowd allow us to sit in, raw emotions and all, at the recalled memory of trauma and the years of paperwork against her. And when her heartbreaking reflection turns to the truths of family, the audience tears are flowing freely.

Attention to detail abounds in Leila’s unit setting, down even to her laptop stickers and stationary. And Wil Hughes’ sound design creates and evocative soundscape of accompanying wee-hour city noises. As the night wears on, it is revealed that both women have things to process. But by birds begin to signal the start of a new day, we are left with a hopeful ending for these brave, resilient, strong and proud women, and reminder also of the importance of family as the most precious type of community.

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