Left - Peta Sergeant. Cover - Ian Bliss and Travis Cardona.
This is a play in the tradition of the great 20th century dramatists, relying on the metaphors inherent to a specific location – in this case a shack on the edge of a river in Tasmania’s remote north-west – to tell a story of alienation. Setting up a pressurised situation between two characters, a father and son, into which a third enters, the plot consists largely of the unravelling of secrets: in form, perhaps, Savage River isn't all that original. But where this production proves its mettle is in its creation of an almost tangible little world.
The shack where Kingsley and his son Tiger make their home feels like a real place. When the two men and their guest, a charismatic young backpacker named Jude, eat muttonbird around the table, we’re right there with them, wincing as Jude knocks back cheap wine as though preparing for the hangover ourselves. When Kingsley shouts in frustration, the air feels charged with danger. When Tiger spies on the worldly Jude as she undresses, the sexual tension is palpable (as is the subsequent plunge into cold water, for all that the water is imaginary). This heightened sense of realism is achieved through a fortunate confluence of factors.
First, the staging at the Backspace Theatre, where the first row is at stage level and all seats are in spitting distance, brings the audience right into Kingsley and Tiger’s realm from the first. When Jude, drunk and disreputable, makes her entrance she does to the audience exactly what she’s doing to the men: overwhelms. With her pained laughter and expressiveness, her tight jeans (lacy underwear showing), her mass of hair, she's too much in every way: but you can’t take your eyes off her. The actors don’t have to do much to be heard in this intimate space, so when they do let themselves go, it’s powerful.
Secondly, playwright Steve Rodgers’ language is believably rough-hewn, while imbued with poetry and a sense of the absurd. His finely realised script has enough detail to enable us to clearly picture Kingsley and Tiger’s day-to-day lives; and not just for the duration of the story but for years past, for most of Tiger’s life. (It’s true that we don’t understand Jude nearly so well, we learn little of her history, but perhaps this is understandable; she is playing the archetype of ‘the stranger’ after all.)
We understand how narrow this family’s world has been – especially for Tiger, who knows nothing but the wilderness around him and random snatches of culture gleaned from television – and their self-enforced imprisonment. Fear has turned Kingsley inward, even as he clearly longs for warmth and company, and he’s dragged his son with him. So what seems at first to be the good-hearted story of a dysfunctional family begins to emerge as something much darker. Dysfunction, Rodgers seems to say – and perhaps the great dramatists would concur? – is not interesting enough to write about: tragedy is the thing. (I should point out that in saying this I don’t mean to give away the ending, and I haven’t: there are ways to be tragic that are not obvious, just as there are glimmers of light that are not necessarily happiness either.)
Thirdly, the performances of the three actors convincingly bring to life these three unique personalities. Jude, as I said, is more sketchy, but Sergeant gives her intelligence and grit, mixed in with silly forced laughter and awareness of her own sexual appeal. When Jude laughs it quite often seems fake, but more often than not it’s because we know she’d rather be crying. As Kingsely Ian Bliss is magnificently volatile and yet it’s impossible not to feel for him, his every insecurity is writ large across his face as he tries to be a ‘big man’. Travis Cardona, as Tiger, is impressive. In lesser hands, this could have been a tedious creation; Cardona makes him innocent and yet full of emotional intelligence, a sort of idiot savant who’s sometimes just a man. Most importantly for Rodgers’ words, Cardona has the rare ability to make philosophical observations seem natural in the mouth of a simple character.
The fourth factor, and truly it’s just as important as the other three in this production’s success, is Stephen Curtis’ production design. Curtis has considered every detail carefully – from the real black sand that makes Kingsley and Tiger’s ‘beach’ to the old portable television, to the curtains Jude makes for the shack – and in a play like this, where commonplace objects become talismans, this effort is justified. This could have been a very stylised piece of theatre, but by keeping it grounded in reality, Curtis – and director Peter Evans – have made it something we don’t need to intellectualise but can simply absorb.
This story touches on environmental issues, on notions of race and identity, and yet to me it’s just a story about three people with massive power to influence each other’s lives. What will they choose to do with this influence? For my part, it’s Jude who emerges as the figure most worthy of respect. She’s not a very original creation in the broad strokes – a distant cousin to the familiar ‘hooker with a heart of gold’ – but in the particular, and as depicted by Sergeant, she’s fascinating. She doesn’t buckle under pressure, even though she knows, first hand, exactly what violence means. She’s weary but she’s not actually cynical… Neither, for all the darkness in Savage River, is this playwright.
A co-production by the Tasmanian Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company and Grifﬁn Theatre Company
by Steve Rodgers
Director Peter Evans
Venue: Backspace Theatre, Theatre Royal Hobart
Dates: August 13 - 22
Bookings: www.theatreroyal.com.au | (03) 6233 2299