Photos - Irene Lemon
Four writers were asked to live for a week in a small Tasmanian community and this quartet of twenty-minute plays is the result. A reflection on place and identity, the project asks the playwrights to interpret and comment upon a place they can have only a superficial understanding of: a risky enterprise that proves intermittently successful. A handful of key ideas dominate this production – why anyone would choose to live in a small town in the first place is the big one – but, ultimately, it’s the smaller, more idiosyncratic aspects of the stories that prove most rewarding.
First, it’s a piece called The Seagull by Sue Smith, which, as far as I can tell, has no connection to Chekhov’s play of the same name. It’s set in the west-coast town of Zeehan, where we meet Cassie (Jemma Gates) and her married lover, Phillip (Guy Hooper), out-of-towners working at the mine. They’re the sort known to the locals as ‘seagulls’ because they “swoop in, nick the chips and piss off.” Cassie certainly fits this description, admitting she’s only doing the job because she likes the money, using it to fund a hedonistic lifestyle. When family commitments force Phillip to cancel their planned long weekend together, Cassie feels aggrieved and rages about the unfairness of being ‘the other woman’ (the obvious answer to which is, of course: don’t be).
The first half of The Seagull is none too interesting and Gates and Hooper aren’t convincing as a couple, but when a third character arrives events take a more promising turn. May (Joan Murray) arrives to clean the room. At first her no-nonsense attitude exacerbates Cassie’s misery but gradually May's mature perspective provides some comfort. Through her reminiscences Cassie also gets a glimpse into the life and history of Zeehan, a place where life is fraught with danger – the mine, the treacherous highway – and people have learned to appreciate fleeting joys. May is a charismatic character and the relationship between the two women is poignant. Murray is utterly at home in the role and it’s a rare pleasure to see an older woman take the lead plot-wise.
Next up is Bull Kelp by Debra Oswald. It’s set on King Island, where a young man, Brendan (Scott Farrow), makes a lonely living harvesting kelp. Having apparently been scuba diving off the coast, a Scottish adventurer named Selkirk (Hooper) washes up on the beach. An eccentric figure, wetsuit-garbed like an overgrown seal, he overwhelms Brendan with his insatiable enthusiasm and curiosity. He’s fascinated by kelp, he’s fascinated by Brendan’s life and, most of all, he’s fascinated by islands. He has been, he explains, since he was a boy. Selkirk is a fantastic comic creation, brought to life with exuberance and great charm by Hooper, and it’s a device offbeat enough to distract from the occasionally encyclopaedic nature of the dialogue.
The third character is Kim (Gates), a former local who’s only visiting but has taken the opportunity to catch up with her old flame, Brendan. She's now a New Yorker and is contemptuous of island life where everybody knows everybody, a community akin to “a sheltered workshop.” Brendan himself has only returned to King Island out of necessity, he’s not sure where he really wants to be. Thus, speeded along by some unabashed matchmaking on the part of Selkirk, Brendan and Kim begin to recall their fondness for each other, and for the place itself. Kim realises that island life does have its advantages: after all, isn’t the big, bad world tiring her out? This is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece, though it occasionally deals in clichés, such as the idea that people in New York are all neurotic and self-obsessed. Country folk (or island folk, in this case) may possess a different kind of wisdom, but I’m not convinced it’s because their lives are any less complex than those of their city counterparts.
Still, the questions posed by Bull Kelp are ones worth exploring and the three actors are very strong in these roles. Gates effectively conveys a confident but wounded woman, while Farrow is wry and understated as the pragmatic Brendan. A nice touch is the moment when Kim is working out her plans for the future and draws areas of her life in the sand as she talks, the way a child might draw a fantastical island. This harks back to Selkirk’s childhood obsession, a resonant image. The most exciting moments of Bull Kelp are the strangest, where the playwright seems to shake off the confines of her assignment and runs off on a tangent.
Sex, Death and Fly-fishing, the third play, is like one long tangent. Set in the tiny Central Highlands town of Mienna, a place that’s “full of old timers who came to get away from the rest of the world,” it presents two men. One is old and weary, a fly-fishing master (Hooper), while the other is younger and a fly-fishing novice (Farrow). The play draws us into the rarefied landscape of fly-fishing, guided by a detached narrator (also Farrow) and the expertise the older man shares with his friend. He is dying and has come to the lake for one final passionate experience.
While fly-fishing as a metaphor for metaphysical struggle is not a new concept, it is handled here with a quiet solemnity that holds our attention throughout, despite the fact that this is anything but a plot-driven piece. Robert Jarman’s direction creates a very different atmosphere for this segment, the stage dimly lit and the two men often speaking out to the horizon, instead of to each other, as they stare out at the lake. Playwright Adam Grossetti uses repetition effectively as he returns to key images and phrases, as though puzzling through them and getting a little closer to the truth each time. Fly-fishing, we are told, is almost impossible to master and life is the same way: just when we feel we’ve finally got a handle on it…it’s gone.
Finally, there’s The Exceptional Beauty of the First and the Last by Finegan Kruckemeyer, with a similar plot to Bull Kelp. In both a young man and woman fall in love as they resolve ambivalent feelings towards their hometown with the help of an unconventional outsider. In this case, the outsider is Julie (Murray), who has retired to Swansea for mysterious reasons after working as a seamstress in Adelaide. The fact that the two plays have obvious similarities doesn’t lessen the value of either, but it does tend to draw attention to certain conclusions drawn by both the writers, such as the idea that your hometown will always be your ‘true’ home.
This is a less engaging notion than some of the minor themes at work, like the idea that an artist has a uniquely potent way of relating to place (in The Exceptional Beauty of the First and the Last) or that death can be a sort of performance (in The Exceptional Beauty of the First and the Last and Sex, Death and Fly-fishing). Julie tells her young gardener Nick (Farrow) about a famous jazz musician who was passing through Swansea, wrote a great piece of music about it and then died. Nick’s girlfriend Evie (Gates) speculates that, rather than being a chance event, the musician was searching for the right place to die. This might have occurred to Kruckemeyer based on the fact that, as explained to the audience in the prologue, Swansea has the oldest population of any town in Australia.
The Exceptional Beauty of the First and the Last, like the other plays presented in this project, explores fascinating territory but also succumbs to some clichés. Do people in small towns really spend a lot of time discussing who’s left and who’s come back and why? Of course drama is about making explicit the undercurrents of the day-to-day but it seems to me that there are richer and more compelling themes than the eternal city versus small town debate. That said, this script has some pleasingly bizarre aspects. While I was puzzled by the relationship between Julie and Nick (was some kind of sexual attraction implied?), the pairing is an intriguing one.
Despite limitations in its methodology and some unnecessary reiteration of ideas, Sex, Death and a Cup of Tea is a noble experiment with much to recommend it to audiences across the spectrum.
Tasmanian Theatre Company presents
Sex, Death and a Cup of Tea
by Adam Grossetti, Finegan Kruckemeyer, Debra Oswald, Sue Smith
Director Robert Jarman
Venue: Earl Arts Centre, Earl Street, Launceston
Dates: August 25 - 28, 2010
Times: Wed, Thurs & Fri at 8.00 pm, sat at 2.00 & 8.00 pm
Bookings: Princess Theatre Box Office 03 6323 3666 | www.theatrenorth.com.au
Venue: Theatre Royal Backspace, Sackville Street, Hobart
Dates: September 2 – 25, 2010
Bookings: Theatre Royal Box Office (03) 62 33 22 99
Please note: Contains some adult themes and occasional strong language