Left – Matthew Whitty. Photos – Jodie Hutchinson
The central question of About Tommy, by Danish playwright Thor Bjorn Krebs, is how an ordinary young man, a trained soldier armed and itching for action, keeps himself from shooting back when a sniper fires at him. Set in the conflict in the Balkans, About Tommy revolves around the erosion of a young man's sense of right and wrong faced with danger and hypocrisy. Red Stitch Actors Theatre utilises three performers to play a variety of characters, mostly members of The Danish International Brigade, a peacekeeping force whose rules require their soldiers must remain passive even when threatened.
Matthew Whitty takes on the lead role of Tommy, an ordinary young man in extraordinary circumstances, well-supported by Paul Henri and Kate Cole in various roles. The sense of a war zone on stage comprises a combination of media and the actors' creative use of space. The presence of a tank, for example, is achieved by the two men positioning themselves in doorways. The use of film footage showing scenes from the actual conflict is suggestive of a documentary; this is now a too-familiar aspect of theatre which can be distracting. It seems as though audiences can't be trusted to engage with a story of war without seeing it on screen – the way nearly all of us envisage modern warfare but surely the role of theatre is to bring us a more lived engagement with story? In this production there's a misalignment with this element and the physicality of the actors. The sense of physical frustrration the young men experience is, however, well portrayed.
This play isn't as gripping or dramatic as you'd hope. About Tommy is a play about issues and the playwright has forgotten to give us individual characters to care about. The translation from the Danish, by David Duchin, leaves an awful lot to be desired. The dialogue is often formal, clunky and unnatural so that the young men's exuberance is belied by their stolid ways of expressing themselves. At first I thought the mannered speech was meant to give us the impression of Tommy and his mate, Niels, having come from solid Danish burgher-type backgrounds, but no, someone has forgotten to render the text into natural sounding speech – a surprising oversight on the part of the normally highly reliable Red Stitch team. The script is so obviously weighty that I can't believe this wasn't picked up on and addressed.
This is the first time I have been disappointed by a Red Stitch production. The scenes with Tommy's parents, meant to be moving, are downright boring as they speak in clichés. Tommy is way too much Every Boy to be interesting and, although there is a well-structured trajectory to the story and an appropriate dramatic arc, I wasn't moved by him or his plight. This is no reflection on the actors or on direction (Kat Henry directs); it is a problem with a play that rests entirely on a shocking, easily believeable tale to carry its dramatic punch but which is let down by an event driven plot presenting itself as a character driven one, along with the problems with language. Another problem being that the story is mostly related in the past tense by the characters standing on stage; the result is a deadness, a predictability and lack of emotional engagement on the part of the audience.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
by Thor Bjorn Krebs | translated by David Duchin
Directed by Kat Henry
Venue: Red Stitch | Rear 2, Chapel Street, St Kilda East VIC
Dates: April 24 – May 25, 2013
Tickets: $39 – $20