The Great Library of Earth | Dancing Giant ProductionsFirst performed in 2001, Sam Bowring’s play The Great Library of Earth is a refreshing piece of theatre that takes a somewhat different tack than the usual dramas that grace our stages. Using a science-fiction premise, this “grey comedy” takes place on an isolated archive facility far removed from Earth, in the equally distant year 16022.

We can infer from what we see that it is not a society all that different from our own: one that is held in a stranglehold by bureaucracy, corporations and lowbrow entertainment, with little regard for history or knowledge. Indeed, history is very much a core concept of the play as the isolated outpost is the great repository of all human history – a museum, archive and data storage facility in one. Yet for all its seeming significance, the library is clearly held in little regard by the general public. The past is of no interest and the vast storehouse of knowledge is manned by only a tiny handful of men who, like forlorn lighthouse keepers of yore, are isolated on a largely-ignored island in the void, serving out decade-long contracts and slowly going mad.

Sensitive academic Jonza seems to be the only one who actually takes his job seriously, despite being just as eager to leave this state of exile as everyone else. He immerses himself in archival holographic movies from long-forgotten antiquity (acted out live by actors standing behind a large aperture that mimics a viewscreen) and hopes in vain for proper staffing to help him with his research.

Yet to whatever extent Jonza has started to go stir-crazy pales in comparison to Malevot who has taken to walking pieces of broccoli on dog-leashes or dressing the vegetables in neckties and singing to them. Jarnus, the dual doctor and security guard, seems fairly stable by comparison but has a creepy, authoritarian edge to him. Things take a turn for the worse when one of their supposed replacements arrives in the form of potential intern Strephen.

It is a pleasure to see some original Australian sci-fi, as it is extremely rare on our screens, let alone onstage. Mad Max was a long time ago, and as a nation we’re used to portrayals of aliens landing in New York, but would probably laugh at the same event occurring in Sydney. Does this bespeak some cultural cringe on our part, or do we perhaps simply feel that it is a genre totally dominated by Yanks and Poms, so why try? Well, I for one am pleased to see Bowring’s play defying this trend, and I hope that others take heed.

That being said, The Great Library of Earth may not be to everyone’s taste. The play is deliberative and moody at times with the men’s sense of isolation quite tangible, producing neither high drama nor sustained comedy. This is an offbeat little tale that embraces the sci-fi genre without being either pretentious or self-consciously geeky, and with a good dash of humour; what one perhaps imagines an episode of The Outer Limits might have been like had it been written by Douglas Adams. If one is open to these generic conventions and a slightly unusual sensibility, this is a good night out at the theatre.

Capably directed by Danielle Harvey, all the actors in this ensemble cast are very strong. They are headed by Liam Nesbitt as Jonza, managing to be both touching and very funny as well as absolutely looking the part of a man in deep isolation with his bushy, unkempt beard and hair. By comparison, Duncan Fellows also does well, albeit in a more flashy role as the unhinged Malevot, managing to get the great majority of the laughs, although his broccoli song eventually gets a little wearisome.

The somewhat menacing Jarnus is nicely underplayed by Matt Doherty, while the suitably fresh-faced Dean Mason has the somewhat thankless role of the callow intern Strephen. However, both actors also get to break out of their more restrained shells to double as extra characters in the holographic movie that Jonza watches obsessively. As my companion put it, this looked to be the worst film in history.

Joining them in these excerpts is Claudia Tory, whose three roles all appear solely through the holo-screen, as the absence of real women on the station is significant. Tory nicely differentiates her three equally-caricatured roles as a mousey, highly-strung academic, a rave-dancing newsreader and the appalling lead actress of the aforementioned holo-movie, managing to be hilarious in each role yet never overstepping the mark of judicious overacting.

Particular praise must also go to designer Chris McGirr and his set construction team for creating an ambitious, multi-leveled set which seemed to defy the production’s apparent budget and the spatial limitations of the small Newtown Theatre.

The Great Library of Earth may not be for everyone, but it is definitely worth giving a try. My hope is that you will be pleasantly surprised.

Dancing Giant Productions presents
by Sam Bowring

Venue: Newtown Theatre, cnr King & Bray St
Dates: July 25 – August 18
Times: Tuesdays to Saturday 8pm
Tickets: $27, concessions $22. Tuesdays all tickets $15
Bookings: 1300 306 776

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