|The Knowledge | pantsguys Productions|
|Written by lloyd bradford (brad) syke|
|Tuesday, 23 October 2012 08:52|
The Knowledge refers to the extensive training in which London cabbies must be versed in order to pass a test that licences them to drive in their city's streets. It's also, apparently, a euphemism for oral sex. It suffices, too (bringing both of the other references into play), as the title of John Donnelly's new play, enjoying its Australian premiere in a season at New Theatre, under the auspices of pantsguys and The Spare Room.
It's a work that puts me squarely in mind of pantsguy's recent production of Punk Rock, similar insofar as being set in a British school, albeit one well upmarket of the struggling institution portrayed in The Knowledge, in which a student-teacher is, progressively, losing it, as she comes to grips with the actuality, at the coalface, utterly at odds with her beliefs and aspirations going in. Many teachers will, I expect, strongly relate. Donnelly draws on firsthand experience to sound a clarion warning about a crisis in education which may well extend across the ocean to a former convict colony.
Donnelly is smart enough to leaven his heavy dough with a hearty dose of humour, which director, Rebecca Martin, takes every opportunity to exploit, while remaining ever mindful of the importance of the subject matter. She and her cast, for the most part, tread this line sensitively and successfully. Donnelly is also clever inasmuch as he's structured the cast to reflect the cross-generational impact of a poor education.
But who's to blame? The Knowledge is really asking the question as to who might possess it. We have to believe that it resides with teachers, but young people emerging from school, going on to higher education and teacher training, then straight back to school, isn't necessarily the wisest formula for producing anything more than inexperienced, clueless, hopelessly naive idealists. Worse still, once confronted with the day-to-day realities of the bureaucracy in which they work, let alone the great unwashed student body, few can manage to cling to their idealism for long. We make the same mistake with teachers, perhaps, as with doctors: we demand them to be virtually infallible; denying them the right to the long list of foibles and failing we tolerate in ourselves and others.
Production designer, Antoinette Barbouttis, has ingeniously set the scene for us by surrounding us with blackboards, which are scribbled and scribed the disgusting graffiti with which we're all, I expect, well-versed, by dint of a youth squandered in government schools and (however much loathed and avoided) inevitable visits to public toilets. Typically, we take it all in eagerly and, in a self-righteous fit of Fred 'Nilism', declare it depraved and juvenile.
Silvina D'Alessandro is at the centre of the play, as Zoe, a tentative new teacher assigned to a 'Welcome Back, Kotter' remedial class noone else wants. The kids would be cast as either terrors, or victims, depending whether one leans to the Jones, or the left, but the truth is they're neither. And both. Donnelly charts profound shifts in Zoe's character which, even over the span of a longish two-and-a-half hours, are hard for actor and audience to assimilate. D'Alessandro does the best possible job, however, portraying Zoe soon summoning her inner resources and reserves to emerge as a savvy and even calculating go-getter, seeing as many opportunities for her own advancement as her students' and capitalising on them as they arise.
Barry French is Harry, the, er, pragmatic, out-and-proud school principal, who makes no bones about favouritism. He's politically incorrect behind the closed doors of the staffroom, but a stickler for appearances, otherwise. It's a corrupt, disingenuous, discomfiting but, almost certainly, accurate representation. French struggles to balance the buffoonish aspects of his role against the solemn demands of Harry's position. This may not be so much any particular fault of his, or Martin's, but a difficulty of reconciliation at the pointy, pen-wielding end of the process.
Brett Rogers makes good with his character, Maz, the young science master who fancies himself as a ladies man and has, by reputation at least, considerable success in that department. Inevitably, as Zoe's mentor, he crosses the line, which brings some grief and confusion on all sides of the equation.
But it's the students who really shine.
Sal mightn't be the biggest part, but Isaro Kayitesi really makes the most of it, presenting as proud, prudent and with more smarts than she has any real right to if her scholastic status is in any way an authentic reflection of her intelligence. It puts me in mind of my high school in which the socioeconomically disadvantaged kids were, almost regardless of aptitude, trampled down into lower-ranked classes based, presumably, on a stereotyped expectation of their outcomes. Classic Catch 22, if ever the term meant anything.
Daniel (John Benda) is a dark horse. Like Sal, he seems to know when to keep his mouth shut and when a well-placed putdown might be just the manoeuvre. He is shy, sensitive, much bullied and a poet, who takes a liking to Zoe. To reveal where his affection goes and whether or not it's requited is probably to give too much away.
Diminutive Karli-Rae Grogan is Karris, who seems to accept, with relative equanimity and grace, her school bike standing. She's realistic about what people are most likely to value about her and isn't above using her wiles to manipulate and embarrass lecherous teachers, like Maz. Grogan plays it to the hilt, but the secret of her performance is the finely-judged revelation of a kernel of vulnerability that surfaces now and again.
Benjamin Ross is Mickey. There has to be at least one kid who's least likely to succeed and he seems saddled with that cloud, which has followed him around since he entered the womb, let alone the room. Ross is luminous and enthralling: it's almost scary. His every move hints at an explosive, latently violent nature which is what must come when people can find no other way to express themselves.
Martin has drawn out and optimally exploited the best instincts of these young actors, who all excel, but Ross is one to watch, even beyond the confines of this play. Donnelly has crafted a piece which observes how the lines drawn between students and teachers can become precariously fuzzy. No matter that they may be etched into the firmament of an intransigent institution. In the end, they're mere chalk, on that blackboard. He intends for us to feel as we might were a fingernail to be dragged across it.
Yes, pantsguys' production is, at times, blood-curdling real.
pantsguys Productions in association with The Spare Room present
by John Donnelly
Director Rebecca Martin
Venue: New Theatre | 542 King Street Newtown NSW
Dates: 10 October - 3 November 2012
Tickets: $30 - $25
Bookings: 1300 347 205 | www.newtheatre.org.au
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