Orphans | Queensland Theatre CompanyLeft – Helen Cassidy. Cover – Leon Cain and Helen Cassidy. Photos – Lakshal Perera

Not a great deal happens in Dennis Kelly’s Orphans.

The latest production of Queensland Theatre Company’s inaugural Studio season, Orphans is almost entirely situational: husband and wife Danny (Christopher Sommers) and Helen (Helen Cassidy) are having a romantic dinner at home when Helen’s troublemaker brother Liam (Leon Cain) bursts into their home covered in blood – and audiences observe the aftermath. The majority of the work consists of heated verbal exchanges and proceedings take place almost exclusively within the confines of the couple’s home. The few action-oriented plot points that do evolve actually take place off-stage. It is quintessential ‘talking heads’ theatre.

Intriguingly, though, it is also arguably one of the most gruelling and visceral theatrical experiences you’re likely to experience all year. Spluttering to life with an ominous miasma of industrial noise and fractured strobe lighting, Orphans introduces its central premise with an unsettling mixture of tension and mystique and, over two hours, only proceeds to grow more punishing. Kelly’s script, while sprinkled with lighter moments, never really allows audiences a moment’s rest. The tension of the piece is forever accelerating towards almost unbearable levels and, as each act marches past, audiences are forced to confront a series of increasingly brutal truths about human nature.

It is this sense of escalation that audiences will take away from the work. Kelly’s script occasionally meanders into formulaic dialogue (each character, for example, consistently forgets to finish their sentences – while emotional and naturalistic at first, it’s a trope that grows a little tired) but, above all else, is an absolute masterpiece of exposition. As the work progresses, plot points, backgrounds, character’s motivations and identities are revealed, restructured and developed with meticulous pacing. The most obvious example is the long-exposure portrait of the complicated and terrifying Liam but each of the characters – and the plot itself – is marvellously and comprehensively developed over the course of the play’s duration.

In staging the work, director Kat Henry and team have plotted a similar course. Guy Webster’s sound design is an incredibly subtle mix of drones and industrial noise while Sam Paxton’s design is tastefully minimalistic – little more than a sparsely decorated living room. The emphasis is very much on the characters and their relationships. In addition to the obvious amount of work that has gone into the physical representation of the characters (Leon Cain, in particular, deserving of more praise for his work as Liam than this review can possibly bestow), Henry has clearly invested a great deal of consideration in the actual staging of the characters. It’s actually quite fascinating watching the physical ramifications of the characters’ shifting allegiances.

The opening night of the performance is actually marred somewhat by teething problems. While Cain delivers a pitch-perfect performance as Liam, Sommers struggles to grasp his everyman character for the play’s first two acts – not truly coming into his own until the play’s second half. Helen Cassidy, by contrast, seems to come undone somewhat towards the play’s conclusion. Helen’s final confrontation with Liam seems strangely muted. There are also moments – predominantly throughout the opening acts – where Henry seems to come dangerously close to over-emphasising the work’s humour at the expense of its pervasive sense of dread.

Still, these minor complaints tend to vanish when one adopts a holistic view of the work. As one walks out of Orphans, it isn’t technicalities and specifics that are occupying one’s mind. As one walks out of the theatre, you aren’t grappling with performance protocol. You’re grappling with the unnerving possibilities presented by the work itself. You’re left contemplating the very real possibility that a familial meteorite could actually arrive in your lounge room one evening and completely disintegrate your life and your happiness – and it’s difficult to think of a greater endorsement than just such a reaction.

An Oak Tree, Queensland Theatre Company’s last Studio production, was one of the greatest things the company had delivered in years. Orphans is a worthy follow-up. Bring on the next instalment.   

Queensland Theatre Company presents
by Dennis Kelly

Director Kat Henry

Venue: Bille Brown Studio
Dates: 23 June – 9 July, 2011
Tickets: $28 - $35
Bookings: www.queenslandtheatre.com.au | 136 246

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