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Tusk Tusk

Sydney Theatre Company and Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) present TUSK TUSK by Polly Stenham at Wharf 1.

TUSK TUSK (2009) is the second play by Polly Stenham and like her first, THAT FACE, was presented at the Royal Court Theatre. THAT FACE, was presented earlier in the year at Belvoir St. Theatre.

The writing in TUSK TUSK is not as strong or as interesting. In fact it is mostly a re-working of the preoccupations of the first play. The story of a family, in this case, three young children, instead of two, coping with an unstable mother, and absentee father.

Eliot (Miles Szanto), aged nearly 16, with his sister Maggie (Airlie-Jane Dodds), 14, have locked themselves into an apartment surrounded by unpacked boxes caring for their 8 year old sibling, Finn (Zac Ynfante) desperately attempting to survive without drawing the attention of the outside world, waiting for their, gradually revealed, mentally unstable and medicated mother to return, so that they can continue their lives. Visited only by a friend of Eliot’s, Cassie (Krew Boylan), the disintegration of the circumstances and psychology of the young family is finally confronted by the arrival of some adult friends of the mother: Katie (Marta Dusseldorp) and Roland (Cameron Stewart).

The play is unwound then, through the children’s perspective. Eliot has decided to preserve the family unit at all costs and to prevent the authorities from intruding and splitting the group up into foster care. The many scenes show us the children coping, a little more fracturedly, with each other in the deteriorating circumstances. The writing in these scenes seems to be relatively becalmed and not much dramatically happens. It takes a long time for any positive narrative or direction to evolve. Too much of it has an expositionary mode and impatience sets in (“Get on with it”).

In THAT FACE, Ms Stenham has written a fascinating psychological character in the mother figure Martha and sets up an intriguing and ultimately moving emotional struggle with her son, Henry, through the progress of the play’s journey. In TUSK TUSK the children’s characters have no such inner dimensions either in themselves or in their developing relationships with each other- it is all very surface. Thus this play lacks the enveloping dynamics of conflict and the entrance of the adult figures in the final scene feels contrived and not thoroughly worked through. The ending a most unsatisfactory (and unrealistic) solution.

The strength of the production is that the Director, Shanon Murphy, has elicited very easy and relaxed and attractive performances from her three young principal actors, although, both the leading actors, in appearance are too physically mature for the characters they play, and so, I felt, undermined the real pathos of the situation, which may have substituted and distracted our attention away from the flaws in the writing. Ultimately, both Ms Dodds and Mr Szanto are not able to reveal the depth of truths required in the last scene ,but they are admirable in what they do achieve. Young Mr Ynfante is both charming and disarming. Ms Boylan, in a fairly, dramatically underwritten role, flounders with overstatement and a tendency to comment on the situation and character in substitution, and works in a different playing style to her other younger partners. The character becomes a distraction rather than an addition to the dramatic dynamics.Why has the writer written her and kept her in? Neither the actor or director seem certain. Ms Dusseldorp as Katie brings direction and focus to the action of the play and some agile dimension to a character that, in the writing is overburdened with too many dramaturgical tasks in her brief appearance.

The set design elements (Jacob Nash) lacked architectural logics and so was distracting and the costumes (Bruce McKinven ) remained relatively static in their journey reveal. The Lighting (Verity Hampson) is simply plotted.

This play by Ms Stenham is a huge disappointment, but then, after her spectacular debut with THAT FACE has given herself a benchmark of some quality to exceed. It will be interesting to see what this very young artist gives us next. More time and dramaturgical guidance would, I reckon, be recommended. TUSK TUSK felt like a first play of a promising young writer, rushed on before ready – the fate of many a new Australian play.

TUSK TUSK is another play dealing with the FAMILY. What preponderance of family-focussed plays we in Sydney are having. That this is a very young writer occupying herself, twice, with such fundamental dysfunction at the foundation of our society is alarming. I might recommend a Japanese film NOBODY KNOWS (Directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, 2004), that covers similar circumstances but with a much more insightful and horrendous vision. Sad to say, based on a true story.

1 replies to “Tusk Tusk”

  1. Kevin, I would generally agree with you that the play is "underwritten". particularly after the Belvoir performance of That Face (which I felt I'd probably need to see a second time to really understand all that was going on!). I just bought tickets for this one instantly simply on the basis that it was another Polly Stenham play. With the result it was rather a let down. You are right that the age of the actors who play Elliott and Maggie was just appear too old by about 2-3 years and this does not help with trying to work out what the hell is going on initially as the age of the characters really frames their behaviour, which is otherwise rather unclear. some other reviewers seem to complain about the rather late appearance of the adult actors in terms of stilted performance etc but I did not think that. It is just that they arrive in what has become for the audience a rather desperate juvenile world and therefore appear totally as outsiders. they generally talk in music about the "difficult third album" so it will be interesting to see what Polly Stenham does for her third play. she has probably somewhat exhausted this family riff however and must look elsewhere I think.

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