|Photo by Lisa Tomasetti|
M.ROCK is a new play by Lachlan Philpott. Commissioned by the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and co-presented by the Sydney Theatre Company. Mr Philpott is, in my experience, the most interesting of the 'new' contemporary Australian writers. For those of us who have closely followed Mr Philpott's work, M.ROCK, is a very surprising and pleasing change of content and tone, from his other recent major works: COLDER (2007), SILENT DISCO (2009) and TRUCK STOP (2012).
COLDER is a fierce experience of grief for an unaccounted loss of a son, and the ruins endured by family and friends as his memory, over ruthless time, becomes colder and colder, with no forthcoming explanation or proof of his fate. Time, and the authorities, unable to give to the concerned, what society may call, 'closure'.
SILENT DISCO and TRUCK STOP are, famously, powerful and painful evocations of some of our Australian youth - uncompromising, in the telling of harsh and confronting truths, which, as social documentations, alone, are severe to witness and accept. Mr Philpott's work, then, in content, is not a necessarily easy night of entertainment.
However, balancing (and contrasting) that rawness of contemporary social observation, is Mr Philpott's poetic language in construct and tone, which produces writing of great beauty. He has, so far, given us the 'ugliness' of some real lives but then, has wrapped it in poetic language suspended in a compositional rhythmic control of some painstaking artistry. Its beauty and delicacy is in stark and wonderful contrast to the naturalistic content of his worlds of interest. The Cheated, Mr Philpott's Cheated, are given language of some 'angelic' contemporary rarity. The beauty of misery, and the misery of beauty is his challenging tension, for audiences. A welcome and flattering tension, worth having and savouring, in our contemporary Australian theatre.
Mr Philpott's work is no walk in the park to present, no easy task to solve in the theatre, for it requires great care and discipline from his directors - who must almost be orchestral symphonic conductors (genius) to be able to release its full potential; and the actors need to be rich in the 'Two Traditions', of say, contemporary Shakespeare: actors steeped in the contemporary disciplines of the western theatre insights of Stanislavsky (contemporary psychology), and gifted with the verbal wealth and love of language, with vocal instruments of a high order of dextrousness . Mr Philpott, bestrides like a contemporary artistic colossus: one leg in a stark reality, the other, in the relish of heightened language, as dramatic literature, as poetry. Elizabethan/Jacobean in its style and content?!
Who else writes like this artist in Australia?
M.ROCK is a change of content, and a change in tone, and although seeded in Mr Philpott's usual lower suburban world, it moves and blossoms into a fairytale adventure, quest, inhabited and contrasted, with female protagonists, one young, Tracey (Clementine Mills), and one older, Mabel (Valerie Bader). Tracey, just finishing school and before beginning a study of nursing, takes a six week adventure into the bigger world. She gets lost, she disappears. Mabel shifts out of her comfortable, boring, expected, mature-age life, and 'sleuths' after her. First, into the wilds of Africa, and then into the wilds of Berlin - alone. First, into the rhythmic drumming of Africa - Mabel learns to drum - and then into the immersive sound complexities of the dance clubs of Berlin - Mabel learns to DJ!.
Says Fraser Corfield, Director of this play (and Artistic Director of ATYP):
... I've wanted to commission a play that explores the relationship between young adults and their grandparents (two generations that are increasingly disconnected) for a very long time. ... Lachlan's beautifully original and refreshingly comic play intertwines the coming-of-age tales of two generations in search of a meaning of life. In the process, it forces us to examine our preconceptions about the way different ages should behave. And it does it in a way that honours both generations. It's that combination that makes this play unique.Mr Philpott, poetically, takes us on this journey, sometimes with simplistic rhyming couplets but mostly with just gorgeous lyric-type 'rapping' text. Charming is the word most useful to describe the experience of this play. Charmed we become. Charmed by the Philpott language, and the tantalising music DJ'ing, (Sound Design, Stereogamous: Composition with Paul Mac), by Jonny Seymour. Like the bewitching, mythological Piper of Hamelin, they have us dancing, grooving, and losing, loosing ourselves into following the 'fairytale' adventures of our two women. The audience I sat with, a mixture of young adults and older STC subscribers, were blissed out with the experience, and were 'horrified' or 'thrilled' - dependent on the age point-of-view, which made the experience even more enjoyable, to be in - by the destiny of granny, Mabel, as she discovers that age is no barrier to living one's life on new tracks of derring-do, and discovering, doing it robustly, is the only way to do it. Love is, indeed, in the air with the sounds of music.
The mode of story telling is by a company of actors, two, Ms Bader and Ms Mills, playing the principle protagonists, Tracey and Mabel, while the other three: Joshua Brennan, Madeline Jones and Brandon McClelland, casually play chorus-like in multi-jobbing the many, many other roles and tasks of the adventures of the play - a change of hat, a juggling of a prop, a gentle shift in dialect - all of it having a faint flavour of 'children' in a rumpus room of 'toys' playing at make-believe. None of it really, real, all of it, a lark of imaginative, improvised flights of theatrical game-playing. Its stylistic casualness is its sophistication.
Ms Bader (Mabel), warms to her task and blossoms into a role-play that those of a certain generation will fantasise about adopting as a choice opposing the present government's policy of pensioner 'punching' (at least for a while), although, I thought she sentimentalised her climatic moment of assertion (staged poorly,weirdly by Mr Corfield, in an awkward stage position, for some of us in that wide letter-box space of Wharf 2). Ms Mills (Tracey) was physically convincing and can be a delightful presence, but, as yet, has not the charismatic or vocal presence (or dense skill) to absolutely conquer, the verbal demands of the play (vocal range) in this theatre space to win us unconditionally - her last speech bewilderingly anti-climatic. While the chorus trio, on the other hand, are tirelessly creative, and are a great source of amusement and arrest: Ms Jones' Berlin artist; Mr Brennan's wittily contrived companion, Berlin artist - fake beard and all - and his glorious mother-figure - hand bag and all; and the enigmatic, sexually suave Messerschmidt-nomenclatured DJ, created with a beautifully judged refinement of understatement by Mr Mc Clelland, are just a few of the Dramatis Personae that they conjure swiftly, endearingly in the vast, fast moving storytelling of 75 minutes.
Adrienn Lord has designed the Set and Costumes (props!); Benjamin Cisterne the Lighting.
As I was hitting the pavement of Hickson Road in the company of Jonny Seymour, a crowd of eight or nine, middle-aged patrons, of both sexes, turned to him and greeted him with wide smiles and open-hearted pleasure, beaming and gushing with the satisfaction of the performance like children, again - one is only as old as one feels! And it seemed they felt born again. It was a rare moment for me to witness - they were like stage door Johnny's of old. Jonny tells me, that all the audiences, young and old, all, leave the theatre in a state of ecstasy - and that is not the famous drug-state, he is talking about, I feel sure, but the more rare, theatre drug-state of transported satiety. The season is sold-out, they tell me. Surely, word-of-mouth will give one of these companies cause, that have presented the production, to extend, re-present ,open it up, to a wider audience in the near future.
M.ROCK is a welcome change of pace by Mr Philpott, but a further confirmation of his maturing and immense talent - just as the famous publicity blurb of MGM had told us, surprisingly: "GARBO LAUGHS !!!" (for her film NINOTCHKA - 1939), now we, too, can say: PHILPOTT LAUGHS!!! - What a surprise, eh?
Mr Philpott is the inaugural Australian Playwright Fulbright Scholar and will soon travel to the USA and create a new play for the American Conservatory Theatre (ACT) in San Francisco - my old stamping ground. He is under commission here, his bi-og. tells us - so, let us hope we don't lose him. SILENT DISCO has recently been developed as a screenplay with the support of Screen Australia.
Demand a ticket. Take your entire family. M.ROCK a contemporary fairytale for all ages. Listen to the music of our times and tune in to the universe, we are told, in the play. If music be the food of love, then, here it is on stage. Go.
ATYP seems to be having a golden season of 'hits' this year.