|Photo by Andre Vasquez
Cross Pollinate and Red Line productions present THE VILLAGE BIKE, by Penelope Skinner, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Cathedral St Woolloomooloo. 7th June - 8th July.
THE VILLAGE BIKE is a British play by Penelope Skinner, first seen at the Royal Court Theatre, in 2011.
Rachel Chant in her Director's notes tells us
In preparing this play we went down many tunnels of research: the Madonna/Whore complex, objectification, gender roles, pornography, power and sexual liberation. ... In this so-called 'post-feminist' world, THE VILLAGE BIKE asks us to consider, "what does liberation look like?"Becky (Gabrielle Scawthorn), a school teacher on summer holidays, and just pregnant, buys a push bike to exercise and discover the 'landscape' of her village life. Her husband John (Benedict Wall) has put away his shared pornography (but not thrown it away) and with a surprising 'missionary' zeal begins absorbing the 'sensitive new age guy (SNAG)' practice around the duty of care for the pregnant woman, and his world environmental responsibilities, exemplified by his study with 'text book' of the woman's experience, and developing passion around the curse of plastic bags. His need for sex is subsumed by these new cravings, whilst Becky has grown an insistent sexual need and looks for ways to relieve her cravings. Ignoring the 'mumsy' aid offered by neighbour Jenny, (Sophie Gregg), Becky finds herself oddly affected by the local plumber, Mike (Jamie Oxenbould), who has come to fix her home's 'sweaty pipes', and terribly attracted to the local village 'jock-atification', Oliver (Rupert Reid).
Initially (and maybe the first act is slightly over written), THE VILLAGE BIKE has all the gentle but pertinent middle class satiric tropes of early Alan Ayckbourn plays e.g. RELATIVELY SPEAKING (1965), ABSURD PERSON SINGULAR (1974) but gradually moves into much darker territory such as the later Ayckbourn material investigated in WOMAN IN MIND (1986). Becky imaginatively spurred by her pornography watching, finds herself plunging into a real life situation that like the Isabelle Huppert heroines in films like THE PIANO TEACHER (2001) and ELLE (2016) finds herself in a 'world' out of her control - be careful when 'fantasy' becomes a 'practice'!
This is a very 'adult' (unusual and so intriguing) experience in the theatre, more so as it places a female character centre stage with human needs usually framed within the (generalised) male psychological profile and is examined with an uncompromising and realistic gaze. In Sydney this feminine contemporary world view has probably not being shown so forthrightly since, perhaps, Dorothy Hewitt's work of the 1970's-80's (THE CHAPEL PERILOUS (1972), BON-BONS AND ROSES FOR DOLLY (1972), THE TATTY HOLLOW STORY (1976). It has taken six years for this play to reach a Sydney stage and one ought to be grateful for its arrival.
Ms Chant, has had the good judgement in her casting by having Gabrielle Scawthorn at the centre of Ms Skinner's THE VILLAGE BIKE. Over the past few years Ms Scawthorn has given performances (STOP KISS, E-BABY) of insightful intelligence with a breezy charm, but more importantly, amazingly, centred around subtle revelation that blends a fearless personalisation of the actor with the given circumstances of the writer's creation to her character's journeys to such a degree of refined craftsmanship that one can be confused (sometimes to the point of alarm) of whether we are watching a 'life' on stage - of the truth of a being in the centre of an evolving existence - or, rather watching an actor crafting, acting out for us.
We see on our stages (and film) many performances that are good, very good, but, in my experience in the theatre, are of a style of the last century - decade. Ms Scawthorn is in the midst of finding a way to move the measuring stick/the bar of what passes for great acting to a new and higher place. With the character of Becky in THE VILLAGE BIKE, Ms Scawthorh has found a role with a breath of opportunity to put her instinctual explorations (and skills) in to practice. What is astonishing is the non-demonstrative offers Ms Scawthorn gives thoroughly and relentlessly throughout her every moment on the stage - In THE VILLAGE BIKE, she rarely leaves the stage - with an almost seamless self-demand that, in the theatre, is a marvellous, olympian-like feat. The 'volcanic' internal life Ms Scawthorn creates for us is wonderfully balanced with her expressive skills (voice and body) which are utilised with delicate and seemingly improvised, economy/restraint. Ms Scawthorn is no priest at the altar of thespis, but rather the sacrifice on the altar - it is daring, risky and demanding. The subjective life of the actor/character held firmly within the objective knowledge of the writer's creativity. A marvel of the evolving 'art' of acting. Within the confines of this 'tiny' theatre space the work is both 'theatrical' and yet 'cinematic' in scale, both, at their best.
What we might see, Ms Scawthorn give, in one of the great classic roles on a main stage is the adventure one, as a regular theatre goer, is looking forward to. A Nora. A Hedda. A Phaedra. A Hester Collyer (THE DEEP BLUE SEA). It is a limitless possibility.
Ms Scawthorn is well supported by the other performances about her. Rupert Reid gives a performance of consummate suavity and sexual lure that is unsettling in its physical ease and attraction. Jamie Oxenbould creates a man of bewitched and bewildered bumbling, surprised and grateful with his unexpected good luck, while Benedict Wall, straddles the honest goodness but naive husband/father to be, with a delicacy that prevents the character from becoming a caricature or writerly function, as does Sophie Gregg in her similarly difficult role as the neighbour/mother next door - this woman it seems is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And one must congratulate Kate Bookallil with a small but gigantically effective cameo as the other woman/wife, Alice - it creates a shocking moment of ethically confronting reality.
The women in Ms Skinner's play are startling, on consideration, in their refreshing clarity and are the 'powerful' centre of the point-of-view of the writer, with the men, wryly observed in all of their habitual and 'helpless' masculinity - flawed and culturally self-entitled to their 'function'.
Anna Gardiner and Martelle Hunt are the production Designers and solve the demands of the set requirements within the confines of the Old Fitz space with great skill. While the lighting by Hartley T A Kemp is focused on the illumination of the locations and is accompanied with a Sound Design and Composition by Nate Edmondson - Mr Edmondson seems to be on a cresting wave of creativity, what with JATINGA and other work heard in our theatre's so far this year.
THE VILLAGE BIKE, introduces us to a writer, Penelope Skinner, worth knowing and brought to life by a company of tremendous artistry. Within the modesty of the Old Fitz possibilities THE VILLAGE BIKE, production is a very interesting (important) time in the theatre. Along with Sarah Ruhl's THE CLEAN HOUSE, putting women centre stage in a refreshing and confidently focused bravura.