The Black Swan State Theatre Company roars to life in 2016, launching its season with a double bill, where two of Western Australia’s best early career playwrights share the world premiers of their latest efforts. A perfect pairing, Gita Bezard (The Last Great Hunt) and Will O’Mahony have produced moving, challenging pieces that have dominated my thoughts in the aftermath. Each an hour’s duration, and cleaved by a much needed 30-minute intermission, the works had me on the edge of my seat, my mouth simply gaping in horror and awe.
Feeling slightly ambushed, I simply wasn’t ready for such emotionally demanding art. I wanted to stop watching, but was completely caught up in theatre that grabs a hold of you and does not let go. This was not simply frivolous entertainment, and I was left intensely affected.
Bezard’s ‘Girl Shut Your Mouth’, winner of the Black Swan Emerging Writer’s Award, opens the affair, with the lights rising on a Laurie Cullen-Tait designed stage littered with open suitcases, their contents scattered about. Four performers, all young women, dominate the studio, filling the space with their stage presence and assuming a variety of roles – some innocent, others deeply, deeply sinister. Featuring Jessica Paterson (Katie), Shalom Brune-Franklin (Grace), Stephanie Panozzo (Mia) and Brittany Morel (Darcy), we join these nice, refined girls as they struggle to cope with life after trauma. Targets for and victims of senseless, masculine violence, they are desperate to escape the danger, fear and limited opportunities of their miserable circumstances to a new place where they can be “happy and safe”. With one specific destination in mind, Mia and Grace go ahead with a plan to “get a bullet” and join Katie on her way there, despite Darcy’s cautions that this “Promised Land” is not as it seems. Bezard subjects her characters to confronting, truly visceral moments, including two scenes that had me quaking and feeling ill.
Under the direction of one of the State Theatre Company’s Associate Directors, Jeffrey Jay Fowler (The Last Great Hunt), the actresses make great use of the space, expertly driving and slowing the piece through the pace of their movement. A bold political statement about the plight of female refugees, I interpreted this intangible, almost mythical“other place” to be Australia, and in attiring the girls in pink and floral print, part of a carefully curated and colour coordinated set, costume and lighting design, these girls are couched in a familiar, seemingly “safe” Western, rather than Middle Eastern, environment. This allows the play’s core ideas to creep up on you, sneaking past the unfeeling barriers often erected to distance ourselves from relating to refugees on a human level.
‘Tonsils + Tweezers’, written and directed by Will O’Mahony, introduces a fresh cast of four performers, whose on-stage chemistry is completely convincing. In contrast to the preceding work which boiled tersely, the piece races along, but is paced excellently; such that the rapid-fire delivery remains eloquent, while the audience races along behind trying to piece together the disparate, scattered scenes until it suddenly crystallizes with awful clarity. Darkly comic, O’Mahony and actress Megan Wilding had the audience laughing too loudly, even desperately, as they tried to shake the shellshock of the first performance. Set 10 years after an awful tragedy on the day of their high-school reunion, the engaging Lincoln Vickery (Tonsils) and Hoa Xuande (Tweezers) play quibbling friends; one embittered by having been viciously bullied, the other unchanging, trapped in time. Using the physics of binary stars to parallel the emotional journey of their friendship, the work was marginally more friendly though still steeped in blood.
Couched amongst a loaded – pardon the pun–FRINGE WORLD line-up, this has the talent of WAAPA’s recent graduates on full display (they’re just so damn charismatic and lively), and the whole production really does shine a light on WA’s rising stars.
Rather than feeling like the work of young writers auditioning for space on the main stage, the works swelled with daring, collective artistry and creativity, striving to engender the most important discussion you’ll have that night, that week, this month. The sort of work likely to draw younger audiences to the theatre, I would be astounded to find someone who did not take something away from the performance that they simply had to talk about with someone, anyone. Well-performed, well-presented and well-conceived, if the State Theatre Company wanted to make a statement… they made one.
‘LOADED’ runs until February 7.
Words by Samuel J. Cox
Images by James Grant