Don’t be put off by the subject matter of child abuse in David Harrower’s Blackbird. Moral sensitivities aside, this Laurence Olivier Award winning play is intriguing and challenging. It deals with how the actions of the past irrevocably affect the present, the need to be loved, the parameters of adult responsibility, the complexity of relationships, temptation and about what to believe.
Set in a squalid lunchroom of a nondescript factory, Una (Paula Arundell) pays a surprise visit to Ray (Peter Kowitz). They had a ruinous relationship when she was a child of 12 and he was a man of 40. He had to serve 3 years in jail and she, vilified by her family and peers, never recovered. Now, 15 years later, she has come to confront him about how he abused her.
Under Cate Blanchett’s meticulously choreographed direction, the rise and fall of Blackbird’s dramatic structure is clearly delineated. The two characters prowl around each other, attacking, justifying, accusing, confessing, flirting and desiring in a push-pull theatrical dance.
Kowitz and Arundell deliver penetrating and impassioned performances of unfaltering candour. Both are complex. Kowitz imbues his character with an empathy that serves to humanise what otherwise might be monstrous. His Ray is a good balance against Arundell’s vulnerable and flamboyant characterisation of Una.
Ray and Una relive their relationship and reveal the unhealed scars they carry. Both of them have been tragically damaged by their experience and there is no doubt about the psychological damage done, in particular, to Una. And yet, they both very clearly see the relationship as a love affair. Moreover, Kowitz and Arundell draw the audience in so that the moral absolutism often attached to pedophilia is suspended. We too, partly, want to accept their relationship as a love affair. This is by no means an “issue” play. Harrower does not pass judgment about the relationship. This is a play about characters, their circumstances and the dreadful choices they can make.
Harrower’s spare dialogue articulates Ray and Una’s fluctuating emotions and their ongoing pain, love, fear and fury. His play deals with not only the moral ambiguity surrounding their relationship, but also the ambiguity of the nature of their relationship, keeping up the suspense to the end and beyond. As the story unravels, the truth of the situation is difficult to pin down. As an audience, we oscillate between believing Kowitz’s innocuous, weak and clearly ruined Ray, and suspecting the very worst of him.
Designer, Ralph Myers, lighting designer, Nick Schlieper and composer, Max Lyandvert have created a strong sense of immediacy for the production. Seats have been added along the back wall of Wharf 1 so that the action is set in the round. Enclosing the acting space, and reducing it to no bigger than a boxing ring, creates an inescapable and claustrophobic atmosphere. We, the audience, are cheek by jowl with the action.
Blackbird is my pick for one of the best of the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2007 season. It is suspenseful, dramatic, thought provoking and superbly performed.
Sydney Theatre Company presents
By David Harrower
Venue: Wharf 1, Sydney Theatre Company
Dates: 21 December – 16 February 2007
Monday 14, 21, 28 January; 4 & 11 February 2007 at 6:30pm;
Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm (except 25 December);
Sunday 30 December and 6 January at 5pm
Matinees: Wednesday matinee at 1pm, Saturday matinee at 2pm
Tickets: $73 / $60 concession Matinee $65/$54 concession
Bookings: (02) 9250 1777 / sydneytheatre.com.au