Who knew there was a theatre tucked away in the basement of the Holme biosciences building at Sydney uni? The Cellar is home to SUDS (Sydney University Dramatic Society), which just happens to be the longest-running theatre society in the whole bloody country. Well, something like that. Brendan Cowell's Morph has just opened in this underground blackbox, as part of the Verge Arts Festival, presented by the University of Sydney Union.
Produced by Madeleine Miller and directed by Harriet Gordon-Anderson, this production of Brendan Cowell's Morph stars Luke Carson and Stephanie King, with surreal sound design by Travis Ash. It's fitting that Ash should see fit to f**k with the classics (Swan Lake), in interestingly edited, electronic ways, since the play itself could hardly be more surreal if it tried. On paper, it's not really my sort of play. But, in the flesh, it transcends, for the most part, my prejudices against cryptic allegories.
King is Grace Black, 'a magnificent swan'. An apparent chain-smoker and celery chomper (her strict regimen doesn't really allow her the luxury of food), she's warming up at the barre as we enter. Her anxiety and drive is almost contagious. Her aspiration to be a world-beating ballerina is almost breathable. But her interminable rehearsal for the life she wants is rudely interrupted by a loud rapping at the door. Be (that's his name) is there, sent by a mysterious American, who remains so (mysterious, as well as American) for the duration of the work.
Be practically falls into the room, careening around like a wayward dreidel. He's 'been on a fucking boat'. He's also fresh from his latest, spectacularly unsuccessful suicide attempt. Though he prepared well, choosing to plunge from the top of a multi-storey hotel, he bounced, unharmed. How frustrating. On the way down, he noticed an American eating salad, with ranch dressing. Must've been Subway, I think. Any resemblance between this unseen American and Grace's unforgiving choreographer is purely coincidental. Then again, maybe not. But an American that eats salad? That's surreal.
It quickly becomes apparent Grace is everything Be's not to be. Their whole burgeoning relationship seems so unlikely as to be not to be. Yet it is to be. The dissonances between them and changes within them, or attempted by them, are the only constants. Cowell demonstrates their incongruities by way of language. Be and Grace may both be speaking English, but it might as well be Swahili and German, or Esperanto and Latin.
Be may keep bouncing back, but his physical resilience isn't matched emotionally. Perhaps this is why he can't keep still. He's still being buffeted by a traumatic experience aboard that 'f**king boat'. Grace may seem like an unswayable tower of strength, but her vulnerabilities and sacrifices gradually crack the eggshell that is her persona. We see her bleed. We see Be bleed too. What we have here is a case of two broken people, maimed by the rigours of life, trying desperately to forge a workable partnership with a long shelf-life. It requires immense determination, effort and endless renegotiation. It's almost more than either have the resources to bear. Yet, between them, they give birth to something. And nothing. They bleed. Confess. Confide. And are purged.
Cowell's use of language is gymnastic and inventive. At least some of the time, it's a writer's play. All of the time, it's an actor's play, with both King and Carson putting in sterling performances in this visceral, exceptionally demanding two-hander. King moves like the dancer she is and is charismatic and convincing as the psychopathically-focussed, uncompromising, unrelenting bulimic on a desperate mission to realise her dream, or bust.
As with so many people and so many dreams, it turns out to be bust. A rigorous tour has her juggling elephants, or some such. It might as well be that. It was tough. Cowell makes that very clear, by way of nightmarishly colourful exaggeration. Tough enough to break the unbreakable Grace.
Meanwhile, in her absence, Be has reinvented himself as a gung-ho personal trainer and has adopted a whole new way of speaking and behaving, in a valiant, if doomed, effort to reinvent himself. He's talking the talk. But it's a facade he can't hope to keep up. Carson is the epitome of an all-shook-up, traumatised young man, whose real-world experience well exceeds his capacity to integrate it.
Both Be and Grace have to come to terms with the dissolution of hopes and dreams. They're little more than children, acting out the possibilities for their lives. But how many children who express the ambition actually grow up to be firemen, or astronauts, once they've encountered the trial-by-fire nature of adult life?
It's not the sort of play that slaps you across the face like some kind of epiphany. It's the sort you take away and sink your teeth into, like a late-night kebab. Like the kebab, you'll get your hands dirty. And you'll spend hours, if not days, digesting it.
It's six bucks to get in. That's surreal.
Sydney University Dramatic Society presents
Written by Brendan Cowell
Venue: Wine Cellar
Dates: 9-12 October, 2012
Tickets: available at the door