Seaing simplicity

Sea Wall (That Production Company)

Metro Arts

June 22 – 25

There is an essential simplicity to That Production Company’s multi-award nominated, critically acclaimed production of “Sea Wall”, beyond just it being a one-man show. Metro Arts’ New Benner Theatre staging is appropriately the most unassuming it has ever been, for a beautiful and brutal show that is all about its words and a disarmingly powerful performance from Steven Rooke as a character whose life has similarly been stripped bare.

There is an endearing everyman-ness to photographer Alex as he tells us about ex British infantry solider Arthur, who we discover is his wife Helen’s father and therefore grandpop to now-eight-year-old Lucy, as well as being a key player in the tragic events that beset Alex’s most recent annual family visit to Arthur’s home in a French seaside village.

Near to the village is the terrifying sea wall of the show’s title, running under the ocean, deceptively near the shore, which also serves as a symbol for how Alex’s life has been shattered. We learn more slowly as the story progresses in monologue form, craftedly transitioning from anecdotal frivolity to tension filled trauma, largely due to the accomplishment of its script, penned by award-winning writer Simon Stephens (Curious Incident of the Dog In The Night-Time) for Andrew Scott (Sherlock, Fleabag).

Effective writing, it is said, comes from showing not telling through the smallest of details and “Sea Wall” is a masterclass in this, using potent imagery and evocative language to precise effect, whether in exploration of domestic dilemmas of market vs supermarket merits or in recall of the routines of relationships, as much as its bigger picture contemplations courtesy of recalled conversations about god and the need for reason. Early in the show, Alex explains the importance of capturing the humanness of portrait subjects through light. It is just one line, yet it perfectly captures the essence of what is a provocative piece of theatre in its expose of the despair that runs deep after a tragic life-changing event.

Directed with assurance by Timothy Wynn, “Sea Wall” is a tight show of less than hour running time, but that’s all Rooke needs to captivate audience members to moved, emotional responses. Pace and pause are used compellingly, including to allow us to sit in the deliberate discomfort of its confronting descriptions of events one day in France, as much as the poignancy of its protagonist’s pain. Alex’s conversational style is enhanced by all range of natural gestures, movement about the stage space and rhetorical questions delivered by Rooke like they are aimed directly at you. It’s a sophisticated performance enhanced by Sound Designer Brady Watkins’ subtle soundscape

“Sea Wall” is a stunning show whose return, Brisbane season is set to be over all too soon. This is a moving, intimate piece of theatre that illustrates how one actor can hold an audience spellbound. Indeed, its power derives from the strength of its solo performance, making it a must-see for those yet to have the privilege.

Photo c/o – Tom Antonio

Gritty, gripping and game as Ned

Kelly (Queensland Theatre Company)

The Arts Centre Gold Coast

March 13 – 14

Kelly (2)

“Kelly” opens in November 10, 1880. Ned Kelly (Steven Rooke) is in his prison cell, the day before he is due to be hanged, having been found guilty of the wilful murder of Constable Thomas Lonigan at Stringybark Creek. A priest enters to give him his last rites, however, the priest is soon revealed to be Dan Kelly (Kevin Spink) – Ned’s younger brother believed burnt to death at the gang’s final fateful stand against police at the Glenrowan Hotel. He has come to stay goodbye and set things right before fleeing to Queensland, seeking forgiveness from his older brother for his own cowardly part in the final confrontation with police. But first, Ned has some questions about how Steve Hart died.

Ned is unrelenting and defiant (“I choose the rope” … “I don’t want to pass quietly; I want to pass noisy as hell”) but also light-hearted in some of his brotherly taunts. Indeed, in his initial interactions with the prison guard (Anthony Standish) before Dan’s entry, he presents a barrage of blasphemous insults (“You’re so ugly that the loneliest dog in the world wouldn’t f**k your face”, authentically in keeping with his penchant for lyrical language and the tone of his 1879 Jerilderie Letter, dictated to Joe Byrne, in which he refers to the police as ignorant unicorns with puny cabbage heart looking faces.

Although this provides much of the play’s humour, it belies the depth of drama and consideration in this eloquent imagining. And there is much eloquence to Matthew Ryan’s script, which is witty, dramatic and thoroughly well-written, with clever foreshadowing in Ned’s pondering of possible final words and disgust with the death mask made after Mad Dan Morgan’s execution. And one can only anticipate what he comes up with in next month’s “Brisbane”, the play he has been commissioned by QTC to write about Brisbane during World War Two.

“So what’s this about anyway?” I amusingly heard someone in the row behind ask as the show was about to begin. Perhaps you do need some prior knowledge. History reveals that Dan and Ned disagreed and has also brought forth the myth that Dan survived Glenrowan and fled to Queensland (no less than four men claimed to be Dan Kelly at the end of their lives, the show’s program reveals). And there is also long-held rumour of a homosexual relationship between Dan and Steve Hart, another member of the infamous gang. The only thing missing is acknowledgement of the political nature of Kelly’s plight and his belief that that Irish Australians had to throw off the yoke of oppressive British colonialism to secure their rights, which is only hinted at in throwaway lines.

Under Todd MacDonald’s direction, “Kelly” is full of dramatic moments as Dan confronts Ned for putting a death sentence on the gang members’ heads through his actions at Stringybark Creek. And as the impulsive and full of self-importance Ned, Rooke is fearless, bringing the character to raging life, despite the barrier of shackled hands. “Read the newspaper,” he says with undeniable presence; “I’m a national hero”. Indeed, each of the three actors puts in a sterling performance, even Anthony Standish, who doubles and triples as backstory characters to present a layman’s view, as well as reappearing as the gleeful guard who taunts Ned with details of his impending fate

“Kelly” is certainly an intimate show and the staging is appropriately simple in its minimalism, with the action taking place in a wall-less raked box of a cell, almost like a boxing ring, about which the brothers dance around before they square off. This is enhanced by Ben Hughes’ beautiful lighting, which warms the moments of recollection in subtle transition from the reality of grey-tinged goal life.

Kelly (1)

As the tale of a man whose story has outgrown his life, “Kelly” has all the elements of great tragedy and high drama, which makes it an entirely engaging theatre experience. Told with such intimacy, this take of the fractured band of brothers, serves only to remind audience members that this is the story of a young man (Ned was just 25 when he died). While initially Ned is positioned sympathetically, through recall of his heroism in saving a young boy from drowning, he is also presented as a character of little remorse, wanting burial in consecrated ground, not to save his soul but because he deserves it. (“You killed people!” Dan reminds him. “But they weren’t very nice,” Ned replies.) Similarly, the audience is presented with two possible, equally powerful versions of Fitzpatrick’s last moments at Stringybark Creek, allowing audience members to come to their own conclusions about Ned’s place as national hero or glorified horse thief. In doing so, “Kelly” boldly presents its hypothetical story in a gritty, gripping manner that makes it a must-see Australian work.