Caress/Ache

Griffin Theatre Company, SBW Stables Theatre, March 4

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Ian Stenlake. Photo: Brett Boardman

Caress/Ache, a new play by Australian playwright Suzie Miller, was inspired initially by the 2005 execution of young Australian drug trafficker Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore. Under Singaporean law, his mother was not allowed to hug him before his death.

The shocking inhumanity of such a ruling set Miller thinking about the importance and power of touch. The result is Caress/Ache, a play, which went through a long period of studio development at London’s National Theatre. In her program notes, Miller also acknowledges the dramaturgy of a number of highly regarded theatre professionals. And yet, after so much work, the play – which now has its premiere at Griffin Theatre Company – still lacks the emotional depth to rise above its all-too-obvious exploration of a chosen subject and truly resonate.

Miller interweaves a number of stories. There’s Mark (Ian Stenlake), a paediatric doctor who feels like a god when he is saving children’s lives. Even the sex with his wife Libby (Helen Christinson) is better after a successful operation. However, when he loses a young patient on the operating table, he can no longer bear to touch his wife or be touched.

Mark later turns to a phone sex line, speaking to Cate (Sabryna Te’o), a single mother who is working there to support her child, asking her to touch her face and arm and describe the sensation. Cate is new to the job, taught how to handle things (as it were) by her cheery, experienced colleague Belinda (Zoe Carides), who lends the fairly heavy piece a little levity.

Then there’s the furious Saskia who confronts her poet boyfriend Cameron (Gary Clementson), after discovering he has slept with her boss. We also meet Arezu (Te’o), a young Iranian woman whose parents fled to Australia to give her a better life, naming their daughter after the word for “hope”. But Arezu is frustrated that they won’t talk about Iran. When her uncle gives her a book of Farsi poetry, she starts to wear the hijab and decides to return to her homeland to discover who she really is.

Her story is less linked to the all-pervasive theme of touch, but at the airport she meets Saskia who is flying to London. In a brief encounter, Arezu ends up giving the unhappy Saskia a hug – a moment that feels utterly contrived. There’s another tenuous connection between Cate, Cameron and Saskia via an autistic child, which comes out of nowhere and really does feel as if Miller is straining things unnecessarily.

Finally, there’s Alice (Carides) who goes to Singapore to be with her son Peter (Clementson) who is about to be hanged there for drug trafficking only to find she isn’t allowed to touch or hold him. Mark is the Australian doctor/coroner who will be at Peter’s execution and complete the paperwork afterwards.

This particular story strand leads to the powerful closing scenes and the play’s undeniably moving final image. However, it was impossible to watch this without thinking of what is happening in Indonesia. On the very day of the play’s opening, Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran were transferred from Bali’s Kerobokan Prison to the island of Nusakambangan to await their execution for drug trafficking.

For some, the extraordinary timing heightened the emotion and lent the play an added power, with a number of audience members in tears at the end of the play. Others – myself included – found it extremely uncomfortable. Clearly, Miller could have had no idea when she was writing the play of how closely it would be reflecting newspaper headlines. Had the preceding scenes been dramatically stronger, it might not have mattered. As it was, I found those particular scenes uncomfortably close to emotional manipulation, giving the play a resonance it hadn’t earned.

Directed by Anthony Skuse, the Griffin production is staged on a stark white set designed by Sophie Fletcher, which begins as a hospital operating theatre and then allows for quick, simple changes for different locations.

As the start of the play, a quote is projected onto the theatre walls: “Human skin and tissues contain millions of sensory receptors. Without them, there would be no capacity for people to sense the touch of another.”

Various statements and statistics relating to touch are flashed up periodically throughout the play. In the end, they just get in the way, reinforcing the feeling of a lecture. And therein lies the problem with the play. It always seems to be illustrating its chosen topic, rather than organically exploring it. The characters exist only to fit the theme. They don’t feel real, lacking a convincing emotional life beyond what they represent here in relation to touch.

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

Gary Clementson and Helen Christinson as Saskia and Cameron. Photo: Brett Boardman

The dialogue between Saskia and Cameron feels particularly clichéd, causing some sniggers on opening night as he mutters about feeling disgusted with himself, while she can’t believe he could do this to her. (“Tell me it didn’t happen, Please just tell me you didn’t do this.”) The way she goes on and on, furiously demanding more and more graphic details about his infidelities makes her come across as a victim, wallowing in his betrayal, while he hangs his head in shame but perpetuates his lies.

The opening scene in which Mark rhapsodises about his feelings when he is operating uses a heightened, poetic language. He rolls along the top of the metal bench as in a piece of choreographed physical theatre, while music swells. But this style of performance is just as suddenly dropped, apart perhaps from a bath scene featuring Saskia and Cameron.

And why, when Mark’s marriage has obviously been a loving one, would he not at least try to explain to Libby why he now shrinks from her? Instead he silently turns his back. As for Nate Edmondson’s music, sung by the cast, it feels overblown and sits oddly stylistically.

Skuse has the actors play things at full bore. The five performers turn in strong performances, but the play resists their attempts to give it a convincing emotional life. Instead Caress/Ache speaks to us “about” a theme. What’s more, it doesn’t have anything particularly new to say in relation to it.

The fact that a mother can’t hold her son before he is executed is a truly terrible thought. You can see why it would capture Miller’s imagination. She has clearly done a huge amount of research into the subject of touch and all that it involves but she hasn’t found a way to synthesise this into a genuine drama.

Caress/Ache runs at the SBW Stables until April 11. Bookings: griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

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