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

The Long Way Home review

Sydney Theatre, February 8

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Odile Le Clezio, Tim Loch and David Cantley. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

When Sydney Theatre Company announced that it was co-producing a new work with the Australian Defence Force about returning servicemen and women, it sounded like a wonderful initiative – though quite how it would play out on stage, given that the majority of the cast were to be soldiers, was anyone’s guess.

Well, not only is The Long Way Home a wonderful initiative but an important, moving piece of theatre with the power to make an impact on several levels. As well as offering the general public a glimpse into the experiences of our military personnel, it will hopefully aid the recovery of the participants, and help other returned soldiers suffering post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) who see it – many of whom are in denial – to realise that they are far from alone and seek help.

The production was initiated by General David Hurley, Chief of the Defence Force, after he saw a production in London called The Two Worlds of Charlie F based on the experiences of British soldiers. Stephen Rayne, who directed that production, was enlisted by the STC to direct here.

Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene crafted the script after spending a five-week workshop with 15 volunteer soldiers, who had seen active service in Afghanistan, Iraq or East Timor. Twelve of them appear in the play: Will Bailey, David Cantley, James Duncan, Wayne Goodman, Craig Hancock, Kyle Harris, Patrick Hayes, Tim Loch, Emma Palmer, Sarah Webster, James Whitney and Gary Wilson.

They perform alongside five professional actors: Martin Harper, Emma Jackson, Odile Le Clezio, Tahki Saul and Warwick Young. Both Harper and Young have served in the Regular Army and the Army Reserve.

Keene and Rayne decided not to create a piece of verbatim theatre, preferring the dramatic flexibility of a play with characters and several interweaving narratives.

But as Keene writes in the theatre program: “Is The Long Way Home fictional? Yes, and no. Every situation that it presents and every line of dialogue is born out of the experiences of the soldiers who perform in the play. They will play themselves re-imagined. They are bringing their reality into contact with that of their audience.”

What emerges is a tapestry of scenes in Afghanistan and Australia through which we gain an insight into the life of the soldiers during active service – the camaraderie, the terror, the adrenaline, the thrill, the horrific injuries – and then the struggle to readjust to civilian life when they return home with physical and/or psychological injuries.

Linking the scenes are various narrative arcs, the strongest of which follow two soldiers with PTSD, both battling a gnawing sense of loss and uselessness now that they can no longer be soldiers. We have known about PTSD for decades, of course, but The Long Way Home gives it a human face, taking us into the two soldiers’ minds and homes.

One of them, played by Loch, compulsively irons, cleans the house and mows the lawn to give himself something to do when sleep eludes him and hallucinations crowd in on him. The other played by Hancock finds himself becoming increasingly short-tempered and aggressive with his wife.

With professional actors Le Clezio and Jackson as their wives providing a strong emotional anchor in their scenes, both Loch and Hancock are superb, performing with a raw honesty.

As you’d expect, some of the soldiers are more relaxed and convincing on stage than others but overall they do exceptionally well and their physicality when in military mode is naturally utterly authentic.

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

James Duncan, Patrick Hayes and Gary Wilson. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Among many strong performances, Wilson plays a mostly comatose soldier with severe physical injuries including brain damage, who occasionally whispers lines from The Odyssey from his hospital bed. His final monologue had many in the opening night audience in tears – civilians and uniformed men alike.

Whitney is also terrific as a soldier giving stand-up comedy a go, with some cringe-makingly awful jokes.

Rayne directs a tight, brilliantly staged production. Renee Mulder’s flexible set with sliding screens and a huge screen at the back, onto which is projected video imagery by David Bergman as well as text and interviews with the soldiers, is highly effective. The recurring image of armed soldiers in combat camouflage silhouetted against the back screen becomes like a leit motif, both familiar and also somewhat sinister.

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Will Bailey. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

Damien Cooper’s masterly lighting and Steve Francis’ crashing, rock-like soundscape also play a huge role in creating a highly charged, atmospheric space.

Keene’s script is funny, poetic and moving. It captures the robust, droll, F-bombing humour of the soldiers, which has the audience roaring with laughter. The next minute we are holding our breath at the brutal honesty of some of the confessions – from the mistaken killing of civilian women and children to the emotional breakdown of a weeping, traumatised ex-soldier.

Two sketch-like scenes in which a comedy character called Lieutenant Neville Stiffy (Tahki) dissects the “yes” and “no” parts of a soldier’s brain, and the way commands from the top brass filter down to the lower ranks, sit a bit oddly. There are also a few things that don’t quite ring true (would the doctor really talk like that about a patient, in front of him, even if he does appear to be comatose?).

But overall, even if there are no profound insights, The Long Way Home (which runs around two hours and ten minutes including interval) is a remarkable achievement.

The participating soldiers, some of whom had never even been in a theatre before, deserve high praise for opening themselves up in this way and for their commendable performances. Hopefully they will gain something from the experience. (Apparently Wilson’s speech – which was affected by his horrific injuries after a helicopter crash – has developed markedly after working with vocal coach Charmian Gradwell).

Audiences will certainly be enlightened and moved by the play. And if returned military personnel, particularly those suffering with PTSD, do see it – as hopefully they will – one can only imagine how it might speak to them.

The Long Way Home plays at Sydney Theatre until February 15 then tours to Darwin (February 22), Brisbane (February 27 – March 1), Wollongong (March 5 – 8), Townsville (March 14 – 15), Canberrra (March 19 – 22), Melbourne (March 27 – 29), Adelaide (April 1 – 5) and Perth (April 11 – 12). Booking details: www.sydneytheatre.com.au

An interview with Corporal Tim Loch and playwright Daniel Keene can be found here: https://jolitson.com/2014/01/28/the-long-way-home/

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