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ARTHUR and THE SPARE ROOM present DIRTYLAND by Elise Hearst at the New Theatre, Newtown.

“THE SPARE ROOM is an exciting new development on the independent theatre scene in Sydney. THE SPARE ROOM facilitates co-production between New Theatre and independent companies, providing a platform for the creation of challenging and stimulating contemporary performance by both emerging and established artists.”

ARTHUR (a theatre company), is the inaugural partner of this enterprise. ARTHUR, has a company brief, which you can find on Facebook. Too full of too much whimsical persiflage to seriously quote here. DIRTYLAND by Elise Hearst, is a new Australian play and is the first offer of this most welcome development from the New Theatre: THE SPARE ROOM. Three other partnerships are to follow.

DIRTYLAND is, in my experience of it, mostly opaque and ends being a fairly bewildering night in the theatre that ultimately can be summed up as, mysterious.

From the clues of the words written by Ms Hearst and spoken by the actors, and the visuals organised by the Director, Paige Rattray, and her designers: Set and Costume, David Fleischer; Lighting, Ross Graham; and Sound Design, Joseph Nizeti, we are given a landscape that can most easily be read as dreamscape, like a James Gleeson painting.

We arrive to a floor of brown dirt generously scattered, inches deep, within a black box walled space, lit warmly, upon which is placed a tilted set of beige/off cream, waist high, kitchen cupboards of the late fifties Housing Commission style; a Formica table of similar vintage and some kitchen chairs. A filthy single mattress is sprawled on a perimeter heap of dirt to one side, with a small table and reading lamp and what looks like a crystalline fungus decoratively growing or oozing on the dirt mound. On the opposite side is a white peacock fanned wicker chair on which is ensconced a blowsy, over-blown female figure, indecorously, legs askew, in a white night dress, fanning herself and flouncing like a succubus seeking attention, and promising delights. Gradually, in the haunting, hazed lighting we observe other “middle-aged” women dressed in post World War Two fashions, make up and hair, menacingly present, looking desperately bereft, out, at the audience. There is a Gothic feel to the imagery and a recognisably contemporary vampiric hunger to their gazes.

The play begins and a young girl, Anya (Megan Holloway), costumed in jeans and mid-rift tied checkered shirt, reminiscent of Daisy Mae (nee Scragg) Yokum from the Al Capp LIL ABNER cartoon or the more recent BEVERLY HILLBILLIES’ Elly May, tells us, in a broad Australian accent, that this play is about a tooth and exists in a town where half the population has murdered the other half, we subtly notice that there are no full grown men present, only two young adolescent boys.

The imagery of iconic Australian rural horror films such as THE CARS THAT ATE PARIS, MAD MAX, the recent WOLF CREEK, with all their pent up anxieties comes to mind. QUACK, and all its comic absurities, seen last year at the Griffin Theatre, is recalled and a Gothic excitement is quickened in the expectations for this night. Sadly, Ms Hearst has more serious intentions and the writing does not take us there.

Anya, with a rotting tooth seeks to leave the town for the city to find a dentist, with her boyfriend, Moses (Marcus McKenzie) and brother, Harry (Gabriel Fancourt) who, also, are attempting to leave the town to form a rock band. But the other women led principally by Aviva (Lucy Miller), the incestuously inclined mother of Harry, thwart the youth from leaving, employing even sexual seduction to bind the youngsters to the female camp in this skewed world, where human bones lie near the surface of this dirty land.

The text meanders through this scenario, for seventy odd minutes, in search of mirrors and includes much metaphor, but, along with the production, provides few cogent clues for the audience to find an anchoring of location for the thrust of the story, or its purpose, however poetic or surreal the intention maybe, to have clarity or meaning.

Lucy Miller as the mother figure, Aviva, and especially Mr McKenzie as Moses exert a convincing sense that they have a clear knowledge of what their characters are doing and want. I was engaged by them., excited to attend to them. Frustratingly, however, we are none the wiser, but one feels inclined to stay, to solve the situations they present, because of their conviction in their shared scenes. Mr Fancourt, who does the next best, has a powerful imaginative physical energy, but his story telling is too inconsistent in focus to maintain our concentration and faith.

Netta Yashchin, as an older, bewildered and grieving prisoner of this town, Mrs Brown, also plays with an engaged physical conviction but with an uneven vocal inflexion that does not use the text accurately. It tends to be used for emotional intonation than for language clarity and purpose and one is left with the impression that Mrs Brown appears to have escaped as a crazed old belle from a southern gothic Tennessee Willliams’ play and wandered into a foreign Australian landscape, wistfully calling for her long dead “Mr Brown, Mr Brown…”. An eccentric performance, acted to the other performers rather than with them. The character acts on a different plain of conviction and appears oblivious to the effect about her and if this is the dramaturgical purpose, it has not had, as yet, the integration to the rest of the production to be part of the story telling mechanism. It is odd and distracting.

The writer, Elise Hearst plays Renya, and although she has an idea of the character (she did write it) does not have all the vocal skills necessary to make the necessary impact. This is what I felt about Ms Holloway’s work as well – the vocal effort was not equal to the others about her and so Anya loses the central position that she ought to hold. Tami Sussman has been given a fairly underwritten task as Frieda and/or the director has not successfully found the way to highlight or explain her presence in the play to any significant effect. I suspect that Freida is a pivotal character in the writer’s mind.

Maybe, it is, partly, the lack of integrated directorial control over the differing acting styles/ skills employed by the company that causes the blurring of the intentions of the writer and the play.But given what one hears and sees on the stage, the night I attended, the work is mostly, as I said at the start, mysterious. The visual content is haunting and some of the staging imagery is still present with me but, what it is about, what happens, remains a grave uncertainty.

Curiously, the last production that I saw in this wonderful space was Anthony Skuse’s JULIUS CAESAR, and it is the imagery of that production, that sits in my remembrance most clearly. Is there some idiosyncrasy of this space that can command visual focus deftly, but demands very expert and consistent technical vocal skills from the actors, to deliver the text? The JULIUS CAESAR was relatively blighted with poor vocal technique, and here, once again it is the variable vocal skills that seem to make the major differences in the success of the performances and so, ultimately, maybe the play. Theatre spaces each have their gifts and failures.Their own tricks. This space is wonderful to work in but not an easy one, from my remembered experience. It needs to be respected and focused. It makes demands of the actors before it will give over to the audience.

Before attending DIRTYLAND, I went to the launch of the new season of work for Performance Space: UNEASY FUTURES. It is a curated program of discussion, exhibition and performance over the next month. Wandering through the exhibition and then, subsequently, reading at home the attendant season brochure, I became aware that these program notes were sometimes necessary for me to comprehend what I had seen. The works did not speak clearly for themselves.

On getting home from DIRTYLAND and perusing the program and notes I was struck by the WRITER’S NOTE to her play. What is revealed there, as to the source and inspiration for this play, came as some surprise. On reflection, if I had had some of that clue, before the play, I wondered what sense I would have made of it. My interpreting of my experience would have had more directorial focus? I may have found clues to help me attach and read the work more deeply? Who knows? But the “reading” of this text, in performance, by this creative team, either vocally or visually, did not illuminate the possibilities of the Writer’s Note. At this performance, my first ‘read’ of the play, I was left bereft of clarity and mystified. Is it then, that the writer, director, designers and actors were full of knowledge but did not re-think this conception clearly enough to endow the audience with the necessary clues in their work, for us, on first viewing, to perceive the intention of the work ? They made assumptions about the work, because of informed preparation and discussion, that were not actually clearly delineated in the writing and /or production at The Spare Room? Or is it the basic problem of the writing? Too much metaphor and not enough plain story telling? I understand that the audience I saw the production with was only the second one it had had. Not enough previews or time to reveal the problems of writing and production to solve them, perhaps?

DIRTYLAND is not alone and even Ross Mueller’s ZEBRA, at the STC, similarly lacked the dramaturgical attachment to the great Financial Crisis of 2009, I found in the program notes, afterwards, that may have justified the production.. And the STC are the top of the tree in Sydney, aren’t they? The resources immense, comparatively to solve such problems.

It is terrific to have this new theatre opportunity for this work under the behest of ARTHUR, a THEATRE COMPANY and THE SPARE ROOM. The NEW THEATRE has moved onto and into the Sydney Theatre scene with a new vision. Without it we may never had seen this play at all. The right to fail is the paramount need for creative development in any human endeavour,as long as we learn and build from it. My personal mantra is: fail gloriously. Great to have the learning opportunity.

What do you make of it?

1 replies to “Dirtyland”

  1. Similarly, i was little bit baffled by this play, but i could not quite articulate why, and some of your analysis rings a bell. I was thinking about seeing it again to see if maybe i missed something the first time and that perhaps it would make more sense. It did have a bit of a dream-like/nightmarish quality i suppose, which wasn't easy for me to follow. Overall, though, i enjoyed the performances.

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