This play is a mesmerizing cross-continental endeavour between two award winning playwrights, Tom Holloway from Australia and Simon Stephens from the United Kingdom.
The collaboration has resulted in two plays masterfully crafted, imbued with poignant universal truths and powerful expressive imagery. The erudite language tenderly explored the emotion of grief and its tragic consequences to the human psyche.
Both playwrights were meticulous in their construction of the plays and measured in the effect and aptness of every word. The two rare plays formed beautiful companions each intrinsically connected to the other but in distinctive styles that married perfectly.
The red centre in Helen’s experience in Dead Centre was intimately mirrored in the hole that ran through the centre of Alex’s stomach in Sea Wall. The allegorical implications of emotional pain were artistically conceived and sympathetically delivered in the performances.
Following acclaimed seasons at Red Stitch Melbourne, Darwin and Brisbane Festivals, this exceptional world premier alliance opened at the Old Fitz Theatre, Woolloomooloo a harbour-side, inner-city eastern suburb of Sydney.
Director Julian Meyrick honoured the playwright’s intentions by wisely celebrating the words of the plays as the heroes. His minimalistic approach to movement and gestures focused the audience on the words, their rhythms and inflections.
This was theatrical excellence. A man and a woman sat, she asleep on the man’s shoulder as shadows were cast on windows and a warning silence lingered.
We were listening with eyes and ears for nuances of the narratives as they unfolded.
His artistic visionary template, astute analysis and creative interpretation of the plays guaranteed a production of extraordinary clarity and haunting reflection.
Moments of darkness ensured until Helen (Rosie Lockhart) took centre stage.
She began to tell the tale of how she found herself in Australia. Her dynamic presence was palpable as she drew the audience into her chronicle of events.
She recounted how when watching television she was almost hypnotised by the irresistible charms of the men in the ad for Fosters Beer. Compulsively she travelled to Australia a month later from Heathrow Airport.
She settled in Frankston because it reminded her of the very familiar Neighbours television program and secured a position as an Assistant in a Kindergarten.
She peppered her story with comments about Australians saying “they don’t talk about things.” This crucial comment also hinted at Helen’s own elusive secrets.
“I tell you … Australia … There is something going on here … something that hangs in the air but is never acknowledged. And I know what it is.”
Unexpectedly she disclosed that at Uluru she had a complete breakdown. She compared the grey of England with the “red earth and deep blue skies” of the desert.
Did Helen’s response to the colour and the silence of the desert release an unbearable cascade of emotions intensified by her shocked and confronting experiences in Alice Springs?
She indifferently confided to the audience that her father was missing and it clearly signified underlying, unsettling and unresolved conflict.
To escape was the answer to her question why people had come to Australia for over the past one hundred years.
To escape what, was tenderly communicated in the second play Sea Wall where Alex (Ben Prendergast) invited us into his life and gently shared all that he cherished.
The digital designer Katie Cavangah sensitively orchestrated a mood change with the digital images of ripples, swirls and the movement of water projected and intuitively foreshadowing.
Alex reminisces about meeting and developing a warm relationship with Helen’s father, Arthur. Arthur gives advice about taking photographs below the subject and preferably in daylight.
Alex’s poignant description of his concerns about Helen giving birth to their daughter is lovingly articulated and softly underscored.
During one of their visits to Arthur’s home Alex scuba dives in the ocean to the Sea Wall.
This terrifying ordeal reveals not only the agony of swirling and falling in the darkness but also mirrors the relentless free fall that is woven in the anguish of the aftermath of grief.
They travelled each year to this seaside location with their beloved daughter Lucy a buoyant, happy, clever, funny and pretty child.
As Alex lovingly described his adored daughter, Helen was strategically seated almost a wisp of an image in the darkness as she nostalgically wound up a music box and wistful notes trickled in the air.
This moment of theatre was eloquently simple and beautifully framed.
Alex proudly declared he had secured a lucrative contract taking photographs for a catalogue.
He described a further incident that was a catalyst for reminding him of his good fortune in life and love when he was stunned by his attractive wife who looked so beautiful in a stylish blue dress. He endearingly expressed his sentiments of love and adoration. It was movingly romantic.
Then every detail of that fatal day was sketched in Alex’s memory and the telling of it was painfully transparent.
Alex was falling inside himself as Helen was silhouetted in her blue dress and water images floated across the emptiness.
Rosie Lockhart and Ben Prendergast were sublime they allowed the vulnerability of their characters to direct their words and gestures.
The flickering intensity of eye movements by Rosie Lockhart and the tilt of the lips of Ben Prendergast reflected complete absorption in their broken characters.
Their intense performances illuminated the text with an emotional precision and a perceptive intelligence.
They were acutely aware of the centre of pain for the excruciatingly debilitating emotion of grief that had swamped the characters of Helen and Alex.
After the amazing theatrical experience of the Red Stitch production of Grounded early this year, it was reassuring to note the same level of brilliance was evident in this production of Dead Centre – Sea Wall.
Rose Niland, Special Features NSW, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015
20 October – 14 November
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