With last year’s A Very Expensive Poison at the Old Vic, The Effect from 2012, (about to be revived at the fancy newish Boulevard), and ENRON from 2010, as well as Secret Diary of a Cal Girl and, most recently, the utterly brilliant Succession, Lucy Prebble has desrevedly become one of our most feted writers for stage and screen. The Sugar Syndrome dates from 2003 and was her first full length play, winning awards and getting an airing at the Royal Court directed by one Marianne Elliott, who has similarly gone on to bigger and better things.
It may not be a perfect play, the two central characters, 17 year old Dani, who is has left hospital after treatment for an eating disorder, and Tim, in his thirties, and being monitored after a spell in prison for sex offences, are exaggerated, and defined largely by their behaviours. Their meeting, after Dani poses as a young boy in a chat room, and subsequent friendship, with Dani seeking psychological equivalence and Tim rapidly opening up, is uncomfortable and doesn’t quite ring true. On the other hand it does allow Ms Prebble to explore questions around on-line personae, (well before many others – this was still the MySpace era with Zuckerberg only just about to kick off at Harvard), addiction, self-harm, paedophilia and relationship, and her extraordinary ear for memorable dialogue is as plain here as it is in the later texts.
Debutante Jessica Rhodes goes all in with Dani, a fearless, physically expressive performance. Dani’s worldly-wise exterior is paper-thin, whereas John Hollingworth is asked to hold back in his portrayal of the guilt-ridden Tim. We will see Jessica Rhodes again soon of that I have no doubt. Alexandra Gilbreath is Jan, Dani’s Mum, who truly doesn’t understand her, and Ali Barouti is Lewis, the older boyfriend that Dani also meets on-line and who she strings along, and whose jealously catalyses the disturbing, if not surprising, conclusion. Oscar Toeman’s direction, alongside Rebecca Brower’s set and Elliott Griggs’s lighting design, creates a sharp delineation between the on-line and real worlds. This, and the performances, help to focus Ms Prebble’s slightly over-plotted narrative.
Even it’s faults, this is still an arresting play for a 22 year old to have written and I was a little surprised to see that the OT could claim is as the first major revival.
One book, a Soviet TV adaptation, two films. And now a play. And, between us, the SO and I have all the bases covered. SO, a big fan of Stanislaw Lem’s ground-breaking 1961 dense sci-fi/horror novel, me, unusually tolerant of Tarkovsky’s high culture, languid 1972 film, and both fans of Soderbergh’s more straightforward 2002 remake with Clooney playing Dr Kelvin and Natasha McElhone his dead wife. .
With David Greig as adaptor, having thoroughly succeeded with Touching the Void and The Suppliant Women in his last two outings, and some very favourable reviews from the initial run at the Royal Lyceum Edinburgh where DG is Artistic Director, we were both quite excited, particularly after our epic bus journey to get there. (As time expanded it felt like the A310 itself was auditioning for the role of the eponymous blue planet).
A good sized and young audience for the Saturday matinee, and some mesmeric rolling wave cinematography from Tov Belling and Katie Milwright, and the reveal of Hyemi Shin’s bright monochrome set only increased our expectations. Not for the last time I was reminded of the look, feel and intention of Alistair McDowall’s excellent X at the Royal Court a few years ago. What followed was a stripped-down, simplified, but still essentially faithful rendition of the story, (though sticking mostly to the Tarkovsky film) which didn’t quite live up to its theatrical potential.
A gender switched Polly Frame plays Kris Kelvin, the scientist sent to investigate the strange goings-on at the space station studying the water planet Solaris. There she meets the wary Sartorius, (Jade Ogugua in another smart gender switch), and the geeky Snow (Fode Simbo). The planet itself is apparently conscious, sending “gifts” first in the form of objects and then as visitors from the crew’s past. Dr Gibarian, recently dead, possibly by his own hand, possibly a cancer, has left videos, (cue a giant sized projection of Hugo Weaving), offering Kris his insights. Much of the plot however, like the Soderbergh film, centres on Kris and her relationship with her visitor, Aussie surf boy, Ray (Keegan Joyce), her last, uninhibited, love who may offer her some sort of emotional redemption. Unfortunately this version of Ray, who is real and not just a figment, literally has no back story and cannot cope with the absence this creates.
This being a play we clearly need words, however good the technical prowess of the creatives, (including, in addition to the above, lighting from Paul Jackson, picking up on the planet’s red and blue suns, outstanding sound and composition from Jethro Woodward and further visual effects from Toby Angwin). David Greig’s adaptation cleverly obviates the need for prologue, flashback, exposition or resolution. The three surviving humans, Snow and Sartorius being significantly less fucked up by the experience than their literary equivalents, collectively work through the implications of what they have stumbled upon together. But this is where the text slightly lets down the production. Having set up the, shall we say, echo chamber, the opportunity for the three to share their own stories and to debate what this means for wider humanity is only partly explored. No one likes a talky play but surely here, there is after all a vast, infinite intelligence playing with our protagonists on the doorstep, a bit of philosophical theory might not have gone amiss. Existential isolation, infinite space, the problem of consciousness, all are central to Solaris. And these are scientists so no reason why they can’t come over a bit clever clogs.
And this could easily have been done without losing the human dimension. Whilst we do not see Snow’s visitor who he has “destroyed” we do Sartorious’, a small girl child, and learn why she is there, and Ray and Kris’s past, and present, attraction is explored at length. Matthew Lutton, who is AD at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne, who co-produced, oversees the impressive staging and the Aussie end of the casting, Hugo Weaving (who was sooooo good in Patrick Melrose as the abusive Dad) and Keegan Joyce, are more than a match for the Brits. The short scenes and cinematic cuts, with shuttering screen, prompt dislocation, but with nimble stage management from Kiri Baildon Smith and team, do not impede momentum.
This was, in spite of the missed opportunities, a satisfying piece of theatre that perhaps deserved an audience beyond just Melbourne, Edinburgh and London, though these are three of the finest cities on our planet. I see that Mr Greig’s next project is a musical version of Local Hero. Meanwhile I see us Poms are exporting Laura Wade’s Home, I’m Darling and Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys to the good people of Melbourne, both of which I can heartily recommend, to add to delights such as Photograph 51, Kiss of the Spider Woman and True West coming up. And in Sydney I see the Theatre Company is showing The Beauty Queen of Leenane as we speak, with The Deep Blue Sea, The Writer, Rules for Living and A View From The Bridge to come.
This must have been tough. Sydney Theatre Company’s production of The Secret River is an epic production, in terms of the story it tells and the way it tells it, involving numerous creatives and a large cast, over 40 people in total. All came over to headline the Edinburgh Festival and then move on to the NT. And then the heart of the production, Ningali Lawford-Wolf, a leading First Nations activist and performer, who played Dhirrumbin, the narrator of the story, passed away suddenly in Edinburgh. Her family and the creative team agreed to go ahead, Pauline Whyman stepped in and we were fortunate enough to see, (and hear and smell), this marvellous slice of theatre. So thank you all.
Now when I say epic this doesn’t mean the play loses the human dimension. The Secret River, based on Kate Grenville’s award winning novel, (part of a trilogy), is a fiction intended to explore Australia’s colonial past but at its heart are two families struggling to survive. Ms Grenville was prompted to write the book, following the May 2000 Reconciliation Walk, to understand the history of her ancestor, Solomon Wiseman, who settled on the Hawkesbury River. It tells the story of William Thornhill whose death sentence for petty theft is commuted to transportation to New South Wales for life in 1806. He arrives with wife Sal and children and is eventually able to buy his freedom to start afresh. The family’s encounters with the Aboriginal people of Australia, and their relationship with other settlers, good and bad, is explored, culminating in violence. Thornhill’s determination to own and tame “his” 100 acres of land is contrasted with the Aboriginal family’s bewilderment at the very idea and with Sal’s desire to return “home”. Thornhill may be a good man in some ways but cannot stop himself from dehumanising his indigenous neighbours, though by the end his guilt is manifest.
Not having read the book I can’t be sure how tightly Andrew Bovell’s adaptation cleaves to the original story, but director Neil Armfield, associate Stephen Page and dramaturg Matthew Whittet take full advantage of the dramatic opportunity it affords. A simple brown ochre suspended cloth creates a cliff face thanks to set designer Stephen Curtis, Tess Schofield offers simple but authentic costumes and Mark Howett’s lighting is superb. The sound design of Steve Francis and especially the score of composer Iain Grandage, brilliantly realised by Isaac Hayward through piano (keys and strings), cello and electronics, is one of the best I have ever experienced. The full extent of the Olivier stage, and theatrical technique, is used to conjure up this bend of the Hawkesbury River in 1813/14.
The play was first performed in 2013 in Sydney to rave reviews. Which is unsurprising giving just how well the story is told and the power of the message. But you don’t need to be Australian to appreciate that message. The ugly truth of colonisation and the damage done to the culture and society of First Nations people (in Australia and by implication elsewhere) is laid bare but through metaphor not didactically, and the motivations of the characters are made real in actions as much as words. The indigenous Dharug family begins by voicing their apprehension at what the settlers might bring, whilst Thornhill justifies his claim to the land by saying they are effectively nomads who choose not secure land or crops. Curiosity gives way to conflict. Any hope of shared understanding soon flounders on the greed, and/or desperation, of the settlers.
The performances are excellent led by Georgia Adamson as the ruminative Sal, Nathanial Dean as her less thoughtful husband, Elma Kris doubling up as Buryia and Dulla Din, the wife of Blackwood (Colin Moody), Dubs Yunupingu, similarly as Gilyaggan and Muruli, Major “Moogy” Sumner AM as the patriarch Yalamundi, Joshua Brennan as the conniving Dan Oldfield, Jeremy Sims as the vicious Smasher Sullivan and Bruce Spence as the erudite Loveday. (For those of a certain vintage you will remember Bruce as the pilot in Mad Max 2 and 3).
And, of course, Pauline Whyman. Her narration needs to shape and reflect the rhythm of the story, which can’t have been easy after, literally, a few hours of rehearsal. Dhirrumbin is the Dharug name for the Hawkesbury, suggesting, as much of her script does, that she was their long before any human ever arrived. And that she knows how this tragedy will end. It is she that provides the way into not just this place but also the emotional hinterland of the two peoples and, specifically provides the Dharug with a voice for us to understand. Unlike the book the play doesn’t just see these people solely through the eyes of the white settlers. Initially however Andrew Bovell and his team had no language for them to speak. Until actor Richard Green joined the original cast. As a Dharug man he was able to show that their language was very much alive and went on translate and show the cast how to speak and sing it. The Anglicised names of the Dharug in the book could now be reclaimed in their own language and we could begin to understand how they might perceive a history which they had not written.
A theatre saddo, loafer and tightwad like the Tourist can be relied on to fill in the surveys that theatres send out post performance. Do you go to the theatre to be entertained, inspired or educated they say. In the case of The Secret River I can definitively say all three. Equally. And the SO who came along is set to read the book. No higher praise is possible.