‘Bone’, a play by John Donnelly, premiered at the Royal Court 2004, is raw drama. It is performing for a repeat season at the Seymour as the best of 2006 Sydney fringe. Donnelly first came to attention when he won the playwright's award and new director/playwright award at the National Student Drama Festival (NSDF) at Scarborough with "A Short Play about Sex and Death."
‘Bone’ concerns three individuals separated in time and space but each occupying what might otherwise be the last day of their lives as hitherto realised. It bears out the expression ‘live life like there’s no tomorrow’, concentrate one’s focus on what matters.
Donnelly certainly achieves that intensity of concentration here, admirably assisted by a clear direction from Tanya Goldberg and a precise execution by a very strong cast and crew.
Somewhere in the past each of these characters experienced something that for them opened hell’s hole. The play traces each one’s redemption. ‘Hell fire’ is something that Goldberg doesn’t want us to miss, opening the performance with a simulated conflagration. It may be a bit heavy handed but as one of the ‘hell fires’ is of a uniquely British experience it’s probably not a bad idea to make sure that a foreign audience is on the same page.
Hell however isn’t about fire and brimstone, it’s more about a draining away or self respect which in the case of Helen, played by Vanessa Downing, comes in the image of water ‘pouring out’ of a bath leaving her cold and alone. It’s an example of the very dense writing that makes up Donnelly’s minutely detailed language. Helen speaks of it as being ‘poured’ down the plug hole. It’s an interesting choice of words implying a conscious act as opposed to ‘draining’ away. It’s a chosen construct that Donnelly repeats. He shares this precision of language with Beckett and it’s not the only parallel he has with the man of ‘Godot’.
Donnelly, it seems, is about trying to define existentialism and he seems to have come up with a more buoyant view of life than hitherto offered by the particular line of philosophy argued out in the cafes of Paris by Satre and Beauvoir. Here we see the results of failure but we also see the accommodation of it through love, the love that Christ advocated in the immortal declaration ‘that you love one another’. It would seem to be a recurring motif in Donnelly’s work if the forthcoming London production lives up to its title ‘Songs of Grace and Redemption.’
The three characters don’t
cross lives although at times the monologues are so accurately
interlaced the parallel thoughts momentarily make it appear they have.
It’s a trick Donnelly exploits with great success pitching the
audience off balance as it tries to come to grips with what seems like
an altered reality.
Goldberg in firing up the stage capitalises on the imagery of the catalyst that brought home Helen’s particular hell, the slaughter and destruction of their herd after the outbreak of ‘Mad Cow’ disease. The bitterness of that blow brought about her husband’s death. The fact that it all ultimately had been just a terrible mistake on the part of the Ministry made it that much worse. What’s the point of saying sorry when you just don’t care? ‘Bereft’ of anyone to care for her she ceases to care for herself. She doggedly repeats her daily chores as she plans her own immolation.
There is a point in the Helen monologue where she mimes getting undressed. It can only be conjectured as to whether the action was intended to have been staged in reality as it would seem to be a dramatic conceit mirroring Beckett’s own conceit in the clown, Lucky, a stripping back to the essential persona. Elsewhere there are other references to clothing that seemed to lend weight to such an intention.
In his extrapolation Donnelly reminds us that the pain and its remedy are both of our own devise. In terms of the imagery evoked by Beauvoir, we must face ourselves in the mirror and attempt to define what we are. We must take responsibility for our actions. Jamie and Steven, the other characters that share the space with Helen, are obliged to do the same, one at the foot of the cross and the other in the embrace of a stranger. The application of the Christ message is unmistakable.
Both performances, Peter Barry as Jamie and Ryan Hayward as Steven (seen in July as Bassanio in the Ride On production of ‘The Merchant of Venice’ displaying a rare chameleon quality) are extraordinary in their sustained individuality and the ease with which the wholly mimed action is executed.
For all the dark overtones of the subject matter the text is delivered with great lightness and humour. Even Steven’s apparent eventual accidental demise is really very funny, ‘Whoops!’
In the end there is, for each character, a new day with the renewed promise of wonder.
The production was taught and beautifully staged by Simone Romaniuk in a wonderful simplicity with sound designed by Belinda Guin. The left upstage corner was cordoned off by laced mesh filigree that shimmered in the light throughout. What it held for each of the characters the audience was not permitted to see for it concealed through transparency, it was the light that blinded. Through the play the light, courtesy of Verity Hampson, changed almost imperceptibly at times even as it does through the day to reveal effects both eerie and quite beautiful. It opened after the inferno in a cross etched in the centre of the stage about which the three characters manifest themselves, morning had broken. It ended in the floodlit brilliance of a wonderful day.
Donnelly is first and foremost a poet; he has crafted a piece that integrates three lives at cross-purposes both with each other and with themselves. He has delivered here a dramatic text that is both moving and very funny. Messrs Goldberg et al are to be commended on its interpretation and adroit execution.
Bite and Ride On Theatre presents
by John Donnelly
Venue: Seymour Theatre Centre
Dates: Tuesday 18 September - Saturday 13 October
Times: Tue 6.30pm, Wed - Sat 8.15pm, Sat 2pm
Tickets: Adult $34, Conc $25, Tightarse Tuesday All Tix $21
Bookings: Seymour Box Office 02 9351 7940 or Ticketmaster