Checklist for an Armed RobberL - Paul Ashcroft in Checklist for an Armed Robber

In its more compelling moments, Theatre @ Risk’s Checklist for an Armed Robber is a play of composite images. Based on two newspaper stories from a couple of years back, the events of which unfolded over the same weekend on opposite sides of the world, it is at its most visually and dramatically powerful when the themes and images of its two narrative threads are brought together in the same theatrical space. These stories, wrapping themselves around one another in a deft evocation of global simultaneity, both preoccupy themselves with violent acts of desperation; the play is concerned, not only with the fragmentary structure of the modern world, but also with the impact that it has upon those who feel alienated by it.

The first of these stories, set in a Newcastle bookshop, involves an attempted robbery that was narrowly avoided when the shop’s sales assistant – breaking every rule in the book about what to do in the event of a hold-up – calmly talked the robber into leaving empty-handed. The second, which takes place in Moscow’s Dubrovka Theatre, concerns the taking of several hundred theatregoing hostages by a band of Chechen rebels. In both cases, the stories involve young men pushed to breaking point by circumstances beyond their control, and who resort to violence as a means of righting the wrongs that have been done to them. In both cases, too, a female mediator – the shop assistant during the robbery, a Russian journalist during the siege – makes an attempt to avert disaster by counselling the gunman. In Newcastle, the worst case scenario was avoided. In Moscow, tragically, it was not.

Superficially, at least, the stories have much in common, a point that is made abundantly clear by the play’s formal logic of superimposition. In one of its most impressive scenes, the charmingly articulate rebel leader (Ryan Gibson) outlines the reasons for his actions to the journalist (Natalia Novikova). As he speaks, his fervour ever increasing, the bookshop’s sales assistant (Edwina Wren) brushes past him, their shoulders almost touching, cradling a pile of second-hand self-help books and keeping her eye on the would-be robber (Paul Ashcroft) who is shiftily perusing the shelves in the corner. Completely unaware of each other, the sales assistant and the rebel leader do not cohabit the same geographical space; rather, the play, superimposing one scene over the other as if they were drawn on sheets of transparent paper, creates an intermediate space between the two in the form of composite image. This effect is similarly manifested in Isla Shaw's versatile set design, which evokes neither bookshop nor auditorium – not exclusively – but rather some curious mash-up of the two. A comparative reading of the two events is clearly inherent in the play’s very form.

The creation of composite images is not the play’s only structural trope, however, nor even its most common. Playwright Vanessa Bates, writing with seemingly boundless energy, pulls out all the stops in her treatment of the material: cross-cutting between parallel narratives, repetition of key lines and gestures, characters narrating their own actions, repetition of key lines and gestures. In the opening scenes of the play, momentarily lapsing into cliché, there is even a cheesy ‘rewind effect’, which feels show-offy rather than necessary. Indeed, while the writing is certainly strong, one can’t help but feel that this narrative structure, for all its po-mo snap, crackle and pop, is ultimately intended, at least in part, to help mask some of the script’s dramatic shortcomings.

For a start, the two stories, for all their surface-level congruence, don’t really have as much in common as the play and its form would have us believe. Yes, both events stemmed from the desperation of the gunmen, but then not all feelings of desperation are comparable, and those of these gunmen certainly weren’t. Where the rebels are driven by something bigger than themselves – by their commitment to an oppressed people, whose plight exists above and beyond the siege, and will continue to do so after it has ended – the robber is driven by more selfish concerns, albeit ones we can empathise with. This renders the character both less sympathetic and – far more importantly – less interesting to watch. This isn’t helped by the fact that his story is also the less developed of the two.

Nevertheless, Checklist for an Armed Robber remains an ambitious and compelling piece. Its shortcomings, while not negligible, are considerably fewer than its strengths. Director Chris Bendall stages the work with compassion and intelligence, without it seeming either sentimental or calculated, and its implicit critique of modern life speaks loudly to experience. And in a world of widespread inequality, where violence has become the common currency, such critique is not only timely or relevant, but also increasingly necessary.

Theatre @ Risk presents the Victorian Premiere of
by Vanessa Bates

Venue: New Ballroom | Trades Hall, Lygon St (cnr Victoria St), Melbourne
Dates: Thurs 10th May - Sun 27th May
Times: Tues-Sat @ 8pm; Sun @ 5pm, Wed 16th & 23rd, Thurs 17th & 24th @ 11am
Duration: One hour
Tickets: $18 - $28
Bookings: / 9639-0096

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