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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Constellations

Eternity Playhouse, August 12

Sam O'Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Sam O’Sullivan and Emma Palmer. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield

Written by British playwright Nick Payne when he was just 29, Constellations was rapturously received in the UK in 2012. In January, Jake Gyllenhaal stars in a Broadway production.

Grab the chance to see it here because it really is an ingeniously constructed, beautifully written two-hander – and this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production, directed by Anthony Skuse, more than does it justice.

Marianne (Emma Palmer) is a vivacious, voluble physicist interested in the “multiverse” theory. Roland (Sam O’Sullivan) is a laid-back beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue. She goes over to chat but he snubs her, saying he’s married. End of story. Or is it? The scene is then replayed again and again, each time with a slightly different outcome.

This pattern repeats throughout the play at different points in their relationship. But no matter how different possible outcomes we experience, they all end in imminent, untimely death.

Early on, Marianne says to Roland: “In the quantum multiverse, every choice, every decision you’ve ever made, and never made, exists in an unimaginably vast ensemble of parallel universes.”

Although Payne uses the idea of parallel universes for the play’s structure, he doesn’t actually explore the philosophical and scientific ideas around this in any depth. Instead, the play riffs on the idea of “what if?” and the way our lives could go in so many different directions depending on the little choices we make, the people we meet, when we meet them, and so on. Think Sliding Doors meets Groundhog Day (happening here and now in our world – or so it seemed to me).

Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s wonderfully spare set, which opens up the theatre to its bare, beautiful walls, Skuse directs with great precision but lightness of touch giving the piece room to breathe while putting the focus firmly on the human dimension.

Both actors are superb, bringing untold nuance to numerous variations of similar lines (which must make it devilish hard to learn), while creating totally consistent, convincing characters. The way the play loops back on itself also means they frequently have to turn on a dime emotionally, ending one phase in deepest melancholy before returning to perky cheeriness seconds later.

Palmer has the added challenge of portraying Marianne’s developing aphasia (which affects language), which she does in heartbreaking fashion. What’s more, they both nail the English accents – and from two different regions, no less. (Praise to the vocal and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley).

Sara Swersky’s lighting and Marty Jamieson’s subtle sound also play their part in a beautifully modulated production.

The play runs a tight 80 minutes, which is the perfect length. Any longer and it could start to wear thin. Constellations may wear its scientific conceit very lightly but Skuse’s exquisite, moving production enthralls. Recommended.

Constellations runs at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst until September 7. Bookings: www.darlinghursttheatre.com

A version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on August 17

Stop Kiss

ATYP Studio, March 13

Gabrielle Scawthorn and Olivia Stambouliah. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Gabrielle Scawthorn and Olivia Stambouliah. Photo: Gez Xavier Mansfield Photography

Diana Son’s gentle drama Stop Kiss was first staged in New York in 1998 at a time when homophobia and gay hate crimes were very much in the news.

Pivoting on a random act of violence perpetrated against two women, the production resonates freshly in Sydney given the current debate about alcohol fuelled violence and coward punches.

Callie (Olivia Stambouliah) is a stylish, breezy New Yorker who eats at all the right restaurants yet “swerves” through life avoiding commitment. She isn’t fulfilled by her job as a helicopter traffic reporter, while her boyfriend George is a more of a friend with benefits.

Sara (Gabrielle Scawthorn), on the other hand, who has just moved to the Big Apple from St Louis against the wishes of her family, has a quiet determination about her. Excited to be in New York, and comfortable in herself, she is idealistically committed to her job as a teacher at a disadvantaged school in the Bronx.

Their friendship begins awkwardly but gradually a mutual attraction between them blossoms into something more.

The play moves back and forth in time with scenes leading up to the violent act at its core, and its aftermath. Structured so that we slowly discover what happened at the same time as we watch their deepening relationship, it’s heartbreaking knowing what is coming as their love blossoms.

Directed by Anthony Skuse for Unlikely Productions (in association with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras), Skuse shows once again what a sensitive director he is. Staged on Gez Xavier Mansfield’s minimal set, the play unfolds with an unforced fluency that draws you in to the story. Skuse knows just when to add something (music, a song) and when to put the focus tightly on the actors. Where the play could become sentimental, he instead gives us unadorned, heartfelt truth.

Stambouliah and Scawthorn are both excellent, each creating entirely believable characters and mining the frissons, false starts, misunderstandings and tenderness in their relationship beautifully. The rapport between them fairly crackles and the outcome of their relationship strikes at the heart.

Aaron Tsindos and Ben McIvor are also impressive as the men in their lives.

Stop Kiss has a clear political message but delivers it gently, without didactic raging, in a sweet, funny, sad play – the subtlety of which is matched by Skuse’s production. Well worth a look.

Stop Kiss runs until March 22. Bookings: www.atyp.com.au or 02 9270 2400 

On the Shore of the Wide World

SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, January 13

Huw Higginson and Amanda Stephens-Lee. Photo: Rebecca Martin

Huw Higginson and Amanda Stephens-Lee. Photo: Rebecca Martin

In 2012, Anthony Skuse directed pantsguys Productions’ award-winning indie production of Punk Rock, written in 2009 by UK playwright Simon Stephens.

Now, Skuse directs Stephens’ 2005 play On the Shore of the Wide World for pantsguys and Griffin Independent – and it’s another memorable production.

Set in Stephens’ native Stockport, a town in Greater Manchester, the play tells the story of three generations of the suffering Holmes family over the course of nine months.

Peter (Huw Higginson) and Alice (Amanda Stephens-Lee) are muddling along OK but are hurt and upset when their teenage son Alex (Graeme McRae) and his new girlfriend, the spunky Sarah (Lily Newbury-Freeman), want to escape to London. Meanwhile, their sweet but odd younger son Christopher (Alex Beauman) is instantly smitten with Sarah.

Living nearby are Peter’s alcoholic father Charlie (Paul Bertram), who has a close relationship with his grandsons, Christopher in particular, and Charlie’s nervous wife Ellen (Kate Fitzpatrick).

Christopher catches his grandparents unawares one day and is rocked. Then a sudden tragedy forces buried emotions, shame, secrets and regrets to the fore and the family find themselves confronting and opening up to each other as they struggle to find a way to move forward together.

Running three hours including interval, the first act is a slow burn but the second act flies as the emotion builds.

Skuse directs a quiet, beautifully measured, subtle production, in which the actors often stay on stage to watch scenes they aren’t in, the compassion in their eyes intensifying the emotion.

There are excellent performances all round from a cast that also includes Jacob Warner as Alex’s drug-dealing friend Paul, Emma Palmer as a comparatively posh, pregnant publisher who employs Peter to renovate her home and develops quite a bond with him, and Alistair Wallace as John who meets Alice as a result of the tragedy.

Higginson (well-known from ten years playing PC George Garfield in The Bill) is a stand-out though with a heartbreakingly portrayal of the loving but emotionally inarticulate Peter. An engrossing, moving drama.

On the Shore of the Wide World runs at the SBW Stables Theatre until February 1. Bookings: www.griffintheatre.com.au or 02 9361 3817

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on January 19