23rd Productions & La Boite IndieLeft & cover - Daniel Murphy and Kathryn Fray. Photos - Alice Muhling

Going to the theatre with the uninitiated is always an interesting experience. Especially when the play happens to be the dark and controversial Blackbird by David Harrower.

First staged in 2005 as part of the Edinburgh International Festival Blackbird has garnered praise for its unflinching and incendiary account of the sexual relationship between Ray, a 40 year old loser and his 12 year old neighbour, Una. Harrower was honoured with a Lawrence Olivier award, joining a hallowed list of honourees including Tom Stoppard, Arthur Miller and Martin McDonagh.

So to put it mildly expectations were high. Brisbane isn’t exactly the flame to which such works flutter so I was relishing the opportunity to introduce my novitiate companion to a night of visceral, uncompromising theatre.

As we entered the theatre expectations were high. 90 minutes later we staggered out feeling distinctly underwhelmed and in need of a stiff drink…

Great theatre, no matter how bleak the subject matter might be, must be seamless, a finely integrated entity compelling us, the audience, out of our own minds and hearts, if only for a brief interval. With Blackbird the fundamentals exist, a taut, compelling script and a fascinating subject – not just forbidden love, but a love universally condemned. The decision of 23rd Productions to take on Harrower's 90 minute audience assault must be commended. Unfortunately good intentions don’t always translate into good theatre.

Perhaps it was a case of first night nerves but I’ve seen both Daniel Murphy (Ray) and Kathryn Fray (Una) shape far better performances out of rougher clay. Both missed the mark and as a result our conviction in this great and terrible love that they once shared is impaired to the point where the desire to believe in their story is overtaken by apathy.

Blackbird hinges entirely on the ability of two people to stand on a stage for ninety minutes convincing the audience of the private hells they each inhabit. Without that conviction, that absolute certainty, there is nothing left to do but wait it out watching the minute hands of the set clock (Blackbird plays out in real-time) make their laborious way around the dial.

Ray and Una are pain personified, their mutual suffering is endless. There is no moving on from what they experienced together. Like any good voyeur I wanted to be taken to the black wellspring from whence all the trouble flowed.

Perhaps the lack of chemistry came from the demands of the script. The sheer effort it must have taken to come to terms not only with the breadth of the text, but also with Harrower’s staccato writing style, must have been exhausting. Their exhaustion seemed, at least to me, palpable.

Direction by Mark Conaghan also did not meet the demands of the material. An application of relentless force and control was required and if it was there in the direction it didn’t come through in the performances or the pace.

Brisbane audiences are ready to see and engage with works like Blackbird, but our creative talent also has to be ready to give all that is demanded of them. While I have nothing but admiration for those who take on such challenges I also want see them done proper justice. I have a bad feeling my friend won’t be coming to any more shows with me…

23rd Productions & La Boite Indie present
by David Harrower

Director Mark Conaghan

Venue: The Roundhouse Theatre
Dates: 7 - 25 April, 2010
Times: Tuesday - Wednesday 6.30pm, Thursday - Saturday 7.30pm, Sunday 5pm
Duration: 90 minutes (no interval)
Tickets: Full Price $28, Concession $25
Bookings: www.laboite.com.au

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