Back at Riverside, for one thing. Back on form, for another. In fact, with Silvertop Ash, a purpose-built play for the New Mardi Gras (Sydney’s 30th, believe it, or not), he’s surpassed his award-winning self; which, in the case of so prolific and, on the whole, prodigious, is no mean feat.
In the relatively intimate (if still unmistakably municipal) confines of Rafferty’s, Tunks, almost as megalomaniacal as ever, in assuming roles as writer, producer and actor, has devised a clever play: writing real, potent drama around a recognisable set of smalltown characters.
The play powerfully engulfs the motif of Eucalyptus sieberi, a large hardwood that, typically, stands tall; head and shoulders over lesser trees. Shamefully, it’s by such an iconic, representative tree that Hamish, the young, emerging gay man at the play’s centre, hangs himself.
Putting aside a few rather didactic, obvious, moralising lines about young, gay rural youth suicide (something which can’t get too much publicity, but not as a ‘commercial break’, or ‘community service announcement’, in a play, please) which should be cut, this is a very, very well-written play; as taut and spare as any in the playwright’s considerable canon. Indeed, if Tunks can make like Mortein (‘when you’re on a good thing, stick to it!’), rather than digress into the deeply disappointing melodramas of his more recent efforts, we’ll all be better off. But that’s too damn him with feint praise: for now is the legitimate time to rekindle my fervour for the potential of this young man, who might well have progressed well beyond base-camp, to find himself on the very face of his career Everest.
If the likes of Felicity Burke, who’s more than skilfully directed this play, and Lou Fischer are to be his Tensing Nor(no pun intended)gays, all the better; for Tunks is often better choosing not to direct his own work.
Hamish is a 17 year old from Mittagong whose parents don’t seem to understand him. The school bully seems to be gunning for him and his best friend Aaron wants more from him than he may be able to give. Silvertop Ash is the story of one boy’s struggle for acceptance.
Nicholas Baldas, especially for a relative newcomer, is potent, indeed, as the archetypal school bully, Josh: homophobic and, as it turns out, more. Peter Flett, as Hamish’ dairy-farming father, too, is hung up on ‘real’ manhood and, doubtless, quiche has never passed his lips. He is as measured as Baldas, in convincingly portraying the character written so skillfully for him. One climactic scene, in particular, in which ‘Dad’, Bill, succumbs to word-about-town rumour, showcases Flett’s deeply resonant vocal delivery to powerful effect. Janine Penfold, as Penny, Hamish’ mother, is a little too histrionic at times, lapsing into the melodramatic, Home & Away moments Tunks needs be vigilant against. On the whole, however, she delivers a creditable and, at times, outstanding performance. NIDA grad, Ben Gerrard and newbie, Sam Faull, are the Star Observer-crossed lovers: Hamish and his best friend, Aaron. Faull never falters; Gerrard is engaging, believable and little short of brilliant (certainly, one to watch!). The slightly tragic irony is that, if any performance falls a little short, it’s Wayne Tunks’ father-of-three detective; shoes in which he looks horribly uncomfortable. Despite putting the right stuff on the page, in terms of fleshing-out a sensitive, complex character, that plainly defies stereotypes, the right stuff doesn’t make it to the stage. Methinks Tunks’ strength as a writer is actually, if but occasionally, his downfall as an actor: if it’s possible, he’s actually one step too close to his characters; too sympathetic. While, obviously, it’s an actor’s job to ‘become’ his or her character, there needs to be, at the same time, some detachment and objectivity; WT seems to get lost, in some negative space, between the lines. My perspicacious companion acutely observes, similarly, Tunksy is the man, or actor, who knows too much, since he’s written the play. This subjectivity seems, inexplicably, to work against a successful rendering of the character, which, in this case, as in at least one other Tunks production, descends into a glib, patronising moral compass; a veritable Greek chorus. The writer’s clearly big heart is in the right place, but it sometimes seems to affect his judgment in writing his own parts.
The structure and staging of the play, though, in whatever measure as written, and in whatever directorially so, is both devastatingly effective & highly demanding of the cast; the use of flashbacks being very post-modern (‘though not at all self-consciously so) and filmic. At the centre, physically and narratively, is Tunks’ detective, raised on a podium, as if to point to the moral higher ground. Here are conducted a series of interviews with suspects, which includes all, of course, but the deceased protagonist. Actors walk between these interrogative scenes and those in the past.
Director and players alike have handled the conflict and physicality of particular scenes with particular and practically unrivalled success. What might otherwise be awkward, confronting or discomfiting is none of these and in that there is art indeed.
In the final washup, Tunks and company, despite my, ultimately, minor misgivings, have pulled off a gem. It’s no diamond in the rough, either, this time, but a polished act. Thus, all ardent Tunks fans, including this reviewer, breathe, first, a sigh of relief, then, one of delight. Bravo!
Tunks Productions presents
by Wayne Tunks
Part of the 30th Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras Festival
Venue: Riverside Theatres | Corner Church & Market Streets, Parramatta
Dates/Times: Feb 14 – 16 at 9pm / Feb 20 – 23 at 8pm, plus a 3pm matinee on Feb 23
Prices: $34 / $28 Concession
Bookings: 02 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au