Left – the Cast. Cover – Alex Nicholas.
This was my first visit to the relatively new Sydney Independent Theatre Company, which lives on Alice Street, in Newtown, in an old factory space. If your backside can endure an uncushioned bench for a couple of hours, a play must be pretty damn good. Andrew Bovell's When The Rain Stops Falling is better than good. ('Bovell. Bovell.' Think you know the name? Seen Lantana? Or Strictly Ballroom?) It's practically a masterpiece. Not an undemanding one. The audience needs to be on its mettle to apprehend the relationships between characters, which jump boundaries of time, place and generation. To make matters even more difficult, actors play more than one character. And scenes overlap, with actors who aren't really active in a scene present on stage nonetheless. It's all worth it though.
Julie Baz directs this multi-awardwinning play, that begins with people milling on stage, haphazardly darting this way and that, carrying umbrellas. A man we learn is Gabriel lets loose an animalistic scream. A large fish (it's real, we can smell it) falls from above. Unusual. Especially in Alice Springs. If I was still attending high school English classes (not that i always did), Id' assume it must be a Christian symbol. Presumably, it's a sign of some kind. Particularly given it's 2039 and fish are extinct, apart from a rumoured few, served secretively and ceremoniously to a select few in top-notch restaurants.
David Jeffrey, who co-produces with Baz, has done a good design job, with interesting angles, features and focal points. Stage left is a semblance of a fence that puts me in mind of my days in the Northern Territory. Here, the rain buckets down. Stage right, a spotlit calendar, of sorts, which proclaims the year and place of each scene. Also, a large kitchen and table: a gas stove, oven and table. A large pot of soup is dipped into serially, by all cast members; a symbol, no count, home, hearth and comfort zones.
Gabriel (Alex Nicholas) is unsettled. Anxious. He didn't cope with fatherhood very well. He hasn't seen his son, Andrew (Jacob Thomas), since he was seven. He's an adult now and has rung his father to say he's in town and would like to meet. At least he's got a large fish, for a special occasion lunch. Heaven has smiled upon him: even amidst the unrelenting rain, a torrent of which can't wash away the skeletons of the past, manna has prevailed. It's been raining for decades, from London, to Adelaide, to the Coorong. Climate change is wreaking its havoc. We tried to ignore it for too long, at our peril. But the global catastrophe is no more cataclysmic than our own, individual emotional ecosystems, also regulated by actions and inactions of the past. As such, the play has all the portents of Lear: the rain, effectively, is our past and is always with us; it never stops. Often, the best we can do is take cover. We go looking and seeking shelter in far-flung locations, but resolution and peace is in a place that doesn't show up on Google maps.
What one does almost need is a family tree diagram to constantly refer to, so as not to get lost in the layers of the plot.
Just as Andrew has quested and hankered to find his paternal holy grail, so, too, did Gabriel go looking for his long lost father, Henry (also played by Nicholas), turned out by his mother, Beth (Christina Falsone, who gives, strong as the others may be, the most believable performance), on account of her discovery of his pedophiliac propensities, after which she confined herself to the neck of a wine bottle and shutdown her factory of feelings. Gabriel's search means migrating to Australia, leaving the off-white, off-colour suffocation of his mother's (Cherilyn Price) London flat. The idea of the shamed convict looms, exiled for a crime he didn't commit, or one so petty he barely knows what it was. The biblical imprint of the sins of the fathers being visited upon subsequent generations is pervasive, too.
Speaking of biblical, along the way, Gabriel meets Gabrielle (Rebecca Scott and, in a later phase of the character's life, Erin McMullen), who makes toasted sandwiches (but not many, since passers-by are few and far between) in the local diner. She's trying to forget the unforgettable: the disappearance of her seven-year-old brother from the beach years before. She might as well be in chains, such is her reluctance to move on, in any sense. Tragically, on a road somewhere out of Hay, Gabriel dies, in a car accident, leaving behind his progeny, also named Gabriel (father of Andrew). Bereft, Gabrielle marries Joe (David Jeffrey), who loves her with all his heart; an affection she can't return.
Capiche? I don't blame you. But, like the man said, it's worth the investment of concentration. What you'll get in return is a quite finely-judged, well-designed, well-lit production of a worldclass play that will, I'm sure, leave an indelible mark on anyone who sees it. It will resonate uncomfortably (it's not just the seats), but poignantly. And the vibrations will probably be felt for days.
(All the SITC needs now are premises as well-ventilated as Bovell's scripts. My expiry date almost came prematurely.)
Sydney Independent Theatre Company presents
When The Rain Stops Falling
by Andrew Bovell
Venue: Sydney Independent Theatre Company | 8a/32-60 Alice St, Newtown
Dates: 31 Oct – 17 Nov, 2012
Tickets: $32 – $20