Tuesday, April 24, 2018

The Children

Photo by Jeff Busby

Sydney Theatre Company, in association with the Melbourne Theatre Company, presents, THE CHILDREN, by Lucy Kirkwood, in the Drama Theatre, at the Sydney Opera House. 29th March - 19th May.

THE CHILDREN, by Lucy Kirkwood, was first presented at the Royal Court Theatre in late 2016. The Sydney Theatre (STC) Company presented her CHIMERICA last year.

On a part of a crumbling coastline in the United Kingdom there has been an earthquake followed by a tsunami, that flooded a nuclear power plant, causing a disaster that is at present still, long after, being dealt with. Two retired, married, ex-nuclear scientists, Hazel (Pamela Rabe) and Robin (William Zappa), live just outside the exclusion zone in an old sea-side cottage, coping with, among other things, unreliable electrical supply, purity of water and a vegetarian diet. Hazel has enough to occupy herself - yoga and yoghurt and her distant children's families, via telephone - while Robin cares for the cows and a craving for tobacco. A geiger counter for detecting radiation infiltration - danger - is ever present. They are visited by a fellow scientist, Rose (Sarah Peirse), a surprise re-union, for Rose has been living in the United States and there has not been any communication, connection, for years and years.

There was, once, a close personal (and professional) connection and in a naturalistic, almost banal set of conversations and activities - the preparation of tea, a salad lunch (with lots of props: eggs, lettuce and bread, providing opportunities for what actors call 'secondary activities', to which Ms Rabe, with great alacrity, takes distracting advantage of utilising), sharing some homemade parsnip wine, conversation about breasts, and the cleaning up of a shit overflow from the inside toilet - a personal tension between the trio seeps into the atmosphere of this encounter revealing, gradually - oh, so gradually - their complicated past relationships and the wear and tear of what it is to grow old - the fragility of their physical body/selves - in the volatile world of their own making. It seems that we are in a tangled web of memories of hurts, a Pinteresque landscape of old times, good times, sexual rivalry times, to be celebrated, finally, in a dance to the behest of old musical delights.

Then, we are ushered from this little picture of personal drama to the bigger picture of the need for sacrifice and altruism on a global/planetary scale, with a challenge to take on the responsibility for what has been wrought by the human in pursuit of control of energy/environment. Framed by a 'domestic' re-union, the play expands to a greater philosophical field, when Rose tells of her real reason for her return to this cottage and these friends, in the shadow and waft of the nuclear plant that they helped build.

Suddenly, in recall and reflection of the writing we have been witness too, the what we thought were ordinary conversations and activities, we, imaginatively, can expand into a metaphorical (universal) resonance. The image of the egg and its repetition is not just about the literal egg, the breasts of the women and the cows (the milk of life), the plumbing and its shitty spill across the room (sitting in our own shit, perhaps?), the initial nose bleed has become a precursor, a demonstration  of other bloodier, brooding consequences.

Ms Kirkwood's chamber play has thoughtful accumulative power that comes out of ordinariness and, subsequently resounds a sad predictive consequence of a devastating kind. Director, Sarah Goodes, has the delicate measure of the production's stylistic needs and, as in her production of Joanna's Murray'-Smith's SWITZERLAND, a few years ago, 'drip-feeds' the clues of Ms Kirkwood's dramaturgical construct with subtlety of Design: Set and Costume, Elizabeth Gadsby, Lighting, by Paul Jackson, and especially, Sound, by Steve Francis.

Sarah Peirse, as Rose, gives a performance of complicated subtleties with an assuredness of absolute considered control of apt communication whilst being deeply immersed in the possession she has allowed, to bring Rose, as written by Ms Kirkwood, alive for us. This performance is the rock on which this production stands.

William Zappa, as Robin, plays sincerely, honestly, simply, his man, caught within the usual foibles of his gender (a man of his times) and the integrity of a man of science returning, slowly, to the knowledge of his philosophic responsibilities - a part of himself that he hasn't had to exercise for some time. The sense of the decay, the inevitable mortality of our biological  carapace is met by Robin with courage and practical application for better things.

The last of this trio, Pamela Rabe, has the intelligence and insight of the 'function' and dramaturgical responsibilities of Hazel, but, as usual (GHOSTS), employs her theatrical gifts to 'demonstrate' character and characteristics that draws attention, rather, to the actor's contrived humorous gestures that are comic flourishes, undoubted 'crowd-pleasers', but not completely true to the behaviour or sophistication of Hazel or the style of the play. Ms Rabe keeps pulling attention, in very subtle ways, to her skills as a comic actor, and in doing so disrupts the hard won subtleties of the writer and the truthfulness of the other performances. Her offers grow to become a theatrical distraction, even disruption (to use a contemporary Trumpian analogy), instead of a seamless contribution to the fabric of the play and its needs.

THE CHILDREN, is a very good play, and nearly a terrific production.

N.B. I took an American guest: $105 dollars a ticket including the usual fee demanded by the Opera House: $210!!!!

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