|Photo by Amanda James
SWALLOW, is a work by Scottish writer, Stef Smith. It was presented last year, 2015, at the Edinburgh Festival. It tells of three women: Rebecca (Megan Drury), responding (acting out) in a rage to the desertion by her boy friend to another woman; of Anna (Luisa Hastings Edge), an artist suffering from a breakdown depression who cannot leave her apartment and smashes it in pursuit of creativity; and of Sam (Valerie Berry), in a transition of sexual identity from woman to man, who investigates survival in her new carnation in the live world.
Eighty minutes of what is,essentially, three poetic verbal monologues of brooding crisis, the Direction, by famed choreographer, Kate Champion, has marshalled some beauty in these 'depressed' worlds in an elaborate Design by Anna Tregloan, of impressively large grey-blue grid-lined walls and floor, with image projections and text, webbed by fine, vibrating wires across the 'proscenium' of the stage width. Lighting by Verity Hampson. Composition and Sound Design, by Max Lyandvert, being a complex and useful offer to help sustain the work over its length. The visual aesthetic is impressive.
Ms Berry, as Sam, who was once Samantha, creates the character who invites empathetic listening from the audience and holds us tenderly in her story. The performance is beautifully crafted and has a physical truthfulness that reveals all of the awkwardness of such a transition, and ripples with the strange searching for comfort in this new guise, and is centred around a deft vocal clarity of storytelling, never flooded by emotional excess - the story is told with exact clarity inviting the audience to endow catharsis, rather than it demonstrating the emotional states of the character's journey. Ms Berry creates a very, very wonderful performance and invites us to experience, cathartically, the fears and growing joys of finding an expression of identity truth, after a confused past life of distrust and discomfort.
On the other hand, neither, Ms Hastings Edge, or Ms Drury, have in this work, been able to construct a word-by-word revelation of Ms Smith's characters without 'demonstrating' the emotional agony of their women at the expense of good storytelling. We were, essentially, witnesses to the abstract noise of extreme emotional suffering, without any clear guided clarity as to why, which was, probably, justified in the word, phrase, sentence, speech construct, revelation of the writer. Neither actor had seemed to construct a 'back-story', history, of their women, and we saw no subtextual understanding of how these women had arrived at such desperate states of living, they simply 'were' and existed only in the moment of the writing's time reality. Empty, and noisy, vessels. Ms Champion did not seem to be able to manage the means to assist her actors to language clarity or character motivation or history, nothing was apparent into cluing us to understanding these women, except as, what I, unfortunately, came away with, self-indulgences. Ms Champion's strength in creating a physical language for character was apparent, but the play demands attention, a propensity, for language clarity, not gesture, to deliver the work effortlessly to the audience.
SWALLOW is the first offer from a new theatre company, the NATIONAL THEATRE OF PARRAMATTA. The name of the company is audacious in its claim to being National, I have thought. Outrageous, really. Cheeky, I reckon, but good on them, especially if they can come up with the national 'goods'. "As a Directorate…" says Paula Abood, Wayne Harrison AM, S. Shakthidharan and Annette Shun Wah,
…we aspire to present works that resonate with audiences in Western Sydney and beyond. Our vision is to 'put the nation on stage' in ways that are perfomatively compelling, insightful and vital...Just how SWALLOW, the inaugural production of the company, is putting 'the nation on stage' is a puzzling question. The artists are all Australian, for sure, but the CORE, the well-spring of all the creativity - the play, is not. Why not an Australian play? Even more curiously, I wonder, why was not a new work especially commissioned for the company's premiere? Why not commission a dance work from Ms Champion? Her strength. Her work, famously, a hybrid of body and voice?
The nomenclature of this company reminds me of the nomenclature of the NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND, and indeed, as SWALLOW is a play by a Scottish writer, Stef Smith, it may be a more relevant, resonating work for Scotland and that company, than for the NATIONAL THEATRE OF PARRAMATTA, and Parramatta, or anywhere else in this Nation. After the choice of SWALLOW, which has always seemed to be, to me, an incongruous choice to launch this new, ambitious Australian theatre company, (and not just because of its Scottish origin, but also because of its very political but limited scope, despite its importance and timeliness, as subject matter), to, then, have a famous dance choreographer, not hugely experienced with language texts, which SWALLOW is, to launch that project, also, caused me some disquiet as to the advice that this Directorate had taken. The next project, STOLEN (1998), by Jane Harrison, a play concerning Indigenous characters and history seems to me a more likely opening production for the NATIONAL THEATRE OF PARRAMATTA. (Then, perhaps, find a place for SWALLOW in the season, as its aptness from the Directorate is clear.)
However, that STOLEN, is to be Directed by another artist, Vicki Van Hout, steeped in the world of choreography/dance rather than language seems, once again, odd. Both artists, Ms Champion and Van Hout, are very talented (and, dare, I say it, fashionable) and deserve encouragement, but are they the best artists to deliver this text-based work, where vocal artistry-craftsmanship, is more important than movement? Especially, as they are the opening gambits, to establish the artistic credibility of this new National company? The artistic risks the company has taken are admirable, but, for me, also of some alarm. "It", as the Directorate tells us," promises to be an adventure". One just wishes the artistic construct of the 'machinery' of that adventure had more promise/certainty of success than it does. I could be wrong about my anticipation of STOLEN, but I have had my apprehensions of the season confirmed, in the production/performance of SWALLOW.
I say all this, because I care. Really care about its success.
SWALLOW, a handsome (expensive) looking production blighted by two emotionally charged performances, contrasted, with example, by beautiful work from actor, Valerie Berry - all that SWALLOW needed to succeed.