Left - Michelle Fornasier and Steve Turner. Cover - Stuart Halusz and Michelle Fornasier. Photos - Jon Green
Brace yourself if you are going to attend Deckchair Theatre’s opening production for the year, The Modern International Dead. This is not your typical wine drinking, comfortingly warm and relaxed evening of live Oscar Wilde-style culture, darling. This is an uncomfortable, low-key but fast paced, odd-ball presentation of the worst the world has to offer, and for that reason, it’s a powerful and thought-provoking night of theatre that should not be missed.
Originally written by Damien Millar in 2008, The Modern International Dead focuses on the lives of three ordinary Australian’s who have experienced life on the front line; bio-chemist and weapons inspector Rod (Steve Turner), peace-keeper Luke (Stuart Halusz) and former novitiate sister and now counsellor, Bridgette (Michelle Fornasier). They move from Rwanda to Cambodia, East Timor to Canberra, meeting co-workers, journalists, shrinks, intelligence officers, school mates and apparitions. They talk to the audience directly, or re-enact scenes for us, and as their lives and stories intersect and unwind, we become witnesses to the horrors, atrocities and sheer craziness of life in wartime over the last twenty years.
Deckchair Theatre Artistic Director Chris Bendall has directed The Modern International Dead with a wonderfully deft touch. He understood that the power of the show lies in the stories of Rod, Luke and Bridgette, which were captured by Millar from interviews with their real-life counterparts. Consequently, Bendall simply lets the action unfold with a disarming directness and naturalness, managing to convey the power and emotion of these lives without tipping dangerously into melodrama or gut-wrenching tragedy. The bigger moments of absurdity and humour are not lost either, also captured with a wonderful comic balance and awareness of the audience’s preconceptions.
This balance was also helped by the excellence of Bendall’s cast. As Rod, Steve Turner utilised his gift for soft-spoken naturalness and throw-away humour remarkably, finding a quietly devastated core in the heart of a once moral and dedicated man. Michelle Fornasier was also excellent as Bridgette, the wandering soul who just wants to help. As troubled soldier Luke, Stuart Halusz had the lion’s share of the ‘bigger’ emotions, and handled them all with a brilliant understatement and control. When playing the ‘other’ characters inhabiting the world of The Modern International Dead, of which there are forty, all three cast members showed wonderful versatility, timing and fun. Highlights for me were Turner as the religious apparition Mary, and Halusz as the Indian Brigadier and Hamish, co-worker of Rod. They managed to make the transitions between scenes appear effortless, in spite of the fast pace and often lighting quick costume changes.
The performances and direction were well supported by the overall design of the show. Every inch of the circular performance space was utilised, including the three main box crates that divided the stage. Characters, costumes and props appeared out of nowhere, helping establish jumps in time and space for the audience. This was aided by Nick Merrylees’ excellent lighting design, and Kingsley Reeve’s atmospheric sound design. Some contextual information was provided via television screens, but I felt these were slightly under-utilised.
I must say that originally, I found it very hard to get into The Modern International Dead. By interval, I had decided that the direct to audience, presentational style jarred, some of the scene transitions felt rushed and the three main characters came across as distant and hard to empathise with. However, by the end, I realised I was wrong; the very things I initially struggled with were exactly what made this production so effective and immersive.
The characters' world was fast-paced and unrelenting, thus was ours. It was jargon laden, and referenced people and events I would have to use an encyclopaedia to understand. It was a world of horror, despair and absurd humour. This was Rod, Bridgette and Luke’s story, shared with us on their terms, so they can be forgiven for coming across as distant and controlled. But when the characters opened up and their façades cracked slightly, the devastation, heartbreak and loss of ideals was as big as any hair-pulling, gut wrenching Greek tragedy. It was not comfortable, nor comforting. Nor should it be. Their world is still our world, and it was brave of Deckchair to keep reminding us of that.
Deckchair Theatre presents
The Modern International Dead
by Damien Millar
Director Chris Bendall
Venue: Victoria Hall Fremantle
Dates: 17 Mar – 2 Apr, 2011