Ray lives a pretty ordinary life. He is reasonably well employed, with perhaps a middle management status, within an apparently successful factory. He dresses cheaply. He has a long term relationship with a woman he loves and is a devoted step father. He has spent time in jail but has determinedly put that experience behind him. He has legally changed his name. Una, on the other hand, has a well paid job, dresses stylishly and is still living in her home town. Her long term relationship with a man she still loves has recently ended, her family relationships are strained, and she has a history of being bullied, promiscuous and has mental health issues. Fifteen years ago, when Ray was aged in his 40s and Una was 12 years old, they had a sexual relationship.
From the onset, Ray and Una shove their way on to the harsh, ugly stage which is strewn with rotting rubbish and lit by unforgiving florescent lights. He is pushing her in to the staff canteen, hiding her, demanding to know why she is there. She has shown up unexpectedly, demanding to be seen. Blackbird, written by David Harrower and directed by Peter Evans, crashes on to the stage full of tense energy and is a feat of acting brilliance from beginning to end.
Harrower’s dialogue tumbles out of the performers, barely punctuated, rolling on top of itself as the audience is given no time to fully realise where they are and why. Greg Stone (Ray) and Alison Bell (Una) give stunning portrayals of wounded, confused characters confronting their shared past. Greg Stone’s Ray is a deluded, self aggrandising man whose life has been marked by his weakness. Stone’s performance is astonishingly naturalistic. His Ray is a twitching, riveting mess of a man, angry, scared and manipulative, he is desperate to save himself and to retain control of his version of events, past and present. Alison Bell’s Una is, to put it bluntly, a weeping sore of a woman whose adult self has forever been wrought by her childhood.
Blackbird is a thoroughly enthralling play about an unpalatable subject. The set (Christina Smith) and lighting (Matt Scott) designs work well together and collude in the manufacture of a confronting and unsettling experience for the audience. The dialogue is sharp and intelligent, achieving a rhythm that is both familiar and strange. However, some of Harrower’s moments of apparently good natured rapport between Ray and Una fall a bit flat in context and the ending, unfortunately, seems to just run out of steam.
This production will provoke a range of personal and deeply felt reactions from its audience and I am not immune from that. Given the subject matter, I am confused by the relevance of the program notes' specific reference to “moral panic”. I personally hate to think that this production, in an effort to perhaps engender some added controversy, sneaks towards asserting the notion that the relationship Una and Ray shared was in fact a kind of “love affair”, as I believe anyone with the slightest insight in to the particulars of paedophilia can clearly determine abuse as abuse regardless of a child’s level of sexual development and of an adult’s self serving rationalization.
This MTC production of Blackbird, at the Malthouse Theatre, is a startling one containing a quality of performance that is simply too good to miss. Two characters confront their pasts only to realise that they haven’t actually moved on at all and in attempting to momentarily recreate their “romance” they serve only to reveal its transparent and destructive ugliness.
Melbourne Theatre Company presents
by David Harrower
Venue: Beckett theatre The CUB Malthouse
Season: 17 July to 16 August 2008
Times: Mondays & Tuesdays 6.30pm, Wednesdays 1pm & 8pm, Thursdays & Fridays 8pm, Saturdays 4pm & 8.30pm (times may vary during previews)
Prices: $16 - $75.30
Bookings: Ticketmaster 1300 723 038 or online at www.mtc.com.au