Room to play games

The Eisteddfod (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Metro Arts, Sue Benner Theatre

March 14 – 24

Just as is the case where name recognition means that some novels have author names appearing bigger than the book’s title, so too when promotion of a play’s title includes the playwright’s name, there is implication that the show is going to be something special. This is the case with “The Eisteddfod”, the first play from multi-award winning playwright Lally Katz, being presented by Room to Play Independent Theatre at Metro Arts. Not only is Katz the voice behind the work but the occasional narrator that begins the play with a voice over prologue of sorts introducing its two brother and sister characters, Abalone (Matthew James French), Gertrude (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

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The children spend their quiet lives playing make-believe games, shielded from the world by protective parents. When, in their late teens, their parents are killed in a freak accident, the siblings are left grief-stricken with only their games of pretend as comfort for their agoraphobia. The parodies of suburban dreams and nightmares takes the audience through to adulthood, where Gertie desires escape from their childhood trauma. While her interest in imaginary worlds is waning, Abalone remains passionate about amateur dramatics and so asks Gertrude to be the Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth at The Eisteddfod, first prise for which is a trip to Moscow. All the while, their dysfunctional fantasy world is enacted, often in the crudest of terms with erotic games, domestic violence suggestions and memory of a suicide, as Gertrude fantasises about a masochist lover. It is an illogical story of characters out of harmony with their own existence, which is reflected in stagecraft with impressive lighting awashing the action in a spray of colours and adding intimacy to scenes conducted with only the touch of torchlight.

Clearly the dark, comic fantasy is theatre of the absurd. Though its response to the destruction and anxieties of the 20th century through question of the nature of reality and illusion, has clear currently climate connections, absurdist theatre is still an acquired taste so its just under an hour running time is perhaps the perfect length to maintain audience engagement given its challenging content. Indeed, the success of this show rides on the intelligent choices made in all areas of the production, on and off stage. While the confronting themes are tempered by comic moments, there isn’t a lot of relief. Gertrude and Abalone’s world is not an easy place to visit, but experience of it is enriched by the expressive performances of Tucker and French, which do justice to the multifaceted layers of their complex characters. Tucker projects Gertrude’s tortured yet optimistic nature, at once childlike and old-soulful and French is a brother full of bravado in the precision of the physicality of his performance.

“The Eisteddfod” is a well-produced piece of theatre, though it will not be to everyone audience member’s tastes. For the theatre-curious, however, its journey will result in much post-show discussion about Gertrude and Abalone’s broken, suburban world, because rather than giving answers and telling audiences exactly how to respond, it challenges them to find their own way through the work.

The disarm of domestic despair

Red Sky Morning (Room to Play Independent Theatre)

Taylor King Gallery

March 29 – April 8

“Red Sky Morning” begins simply; an everyday, likeable-enough country man (Wayne Bassett) chit-chats in conversation. He appears to be an ‘ordinary’ bloke, living an ‘ordinary’ life in an ‘ordinary’ Australian town. But what is ordinary anyway? This is one of the questions that soon emerges as the harrowing drama continues with introduction of his wife (Heidi Manche) and daughter (Madison Kennedy-Tucker).

After a missed moment of marital passion the night prior, the day proceeds as usual; the man goes to work and the girl heads to school, while the woman waits for them to leave so she can begin drinking. This is their normal, but it is an understanding never acknowledged as the characters never connect, verbally or physically as the play is told through three internal monologues presenting character’s reflections and desires. Each monologue is autonomous, an emphasis of each character’s isolation however, they are cleverly weaved together with perfectly-timed interjections, in nod to their yearn for connection. This is the craftedness of Tom Hollowy’s script, and it is seamlessly executed by the show’s three performers who present the complex interplay of synchronised silences, continuations and overlaps with perfect timing.

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These are flawed characters, not always likeable but, under Beth Childs’ direction, all the more real because of this. Kennedy-Tucker, in particular, gives a strong performance as the Girl, whose schoolteacher crush belies a painful yearning of her own.

“Red Sky Morning” is a big drama of little moments missed and as such, after a somewhat slow start, it takes audiences on a demanding ride from trivial talk of schoolgirl crushes and night-time dreams to the traumatic possible consequences of dissatisfaction unshared. This is particularly so as the story progresses and monologues are delivered atop each other, in competition for audience focus.

The Taylor King Gallery offers opportunity for an appropriately-intimate, disarming production and the simple staging serves to effectively emphasise the internal isolation experienced by the three characters who never move from their immediate space, despite the story’s transition to work, school and churchyard.  It is left to Lauren Salloway’s lighting design to journey the narrative, taking audiences from the pink of a pre-dawn sky to white sunlight and then the burnt orange of a day almost over.

“Red Sky Morning” packs a lot in its 70 minutes running time. It is a poignant and very real look at the reality behind domestic routine and reminder that layers exist in every relationship. However, it is more than just a tragedy of family miscommunication and its exploration of the bleak effects of depression offers a wise advocacy for communicating, staying connected and having meaningful conversations with those around us.