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Belvoir produced BABYTEETH by Rita Kalnejais at the Belvoir St Theatre, Upstairs.

BABYTEETH by Rita Kalnejais, is a contemporary story of a young fourteen year old girl in the last stages of dying from cancer and the repercussions on her close and extended ‘family’.

In the very first scene Millla (Sara West), the girl, dies. The play then travels back in time to show us some of the events that lead to this ending at the beginning of the play. We see it again in dumb show, later. Since we know the ending, perhaps, we can watch the storytelling with more objective watching or, depending on your disposition, with a gentle, gathering, subjective sadness. There is, fortunately, in the writing, a kind of refined, tender emotion going on here and not a mawkish, emotional indulgence. Sentiment as opposed to sentimentality. The play has humour, albeit, from a peculiar angle, but, still, humour.

The play reveals the extended ‘family’ in the normal river of life, the everyday routine of a dawn and sunset and all in between,in kitchens, bedrooms, doctor’s offices, railway platforms and bush parks, whilst dealing, covertly, independently and interdependently, with the rather big meditation around the cycle and inevitabilities of life and death. There is, as in last year’s NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH by Lally Katz (another Melbourne based writer) a risk of a soap opera element to the experience. But Ms Kalnejais has a quirky eye for the capturing everyday events, like a moment at on a railway platform, from a slightly odd, off-centred observational place, and it is this skew-whiff detailing that brings the, commonplace to a gently refreshing perspective. Quirky sex and neighbourly interactions included. Co-incidences and ironies abound. They are not presented, thrust at us, but rather, just drift by, to be seen, caught, if you are of the mood.

The play has a deep remembrance of the writer’s own experience of the death of a young friend, Jemma. In the program notes to the play Ms Kalnejais tells of her reflection on how some trivial, split second encounters in her life, that passed at the time without real impact, have over time,on reflection, gained significance and become a key, a turning point in the consequent shaping of her life. This play writing is full of it, but ultimately is not about Milla or her family, but about Ms Kalenjais trying to ask questions that (Jemma’s) life asked her. “How do you love like you’ve got nothing to lose? How do you let go? How do you experience the world in all of its intensity without being torn apart by its violence and wild, wild, wild kindness?”

The director, Eamon Flack, unlike his rather effusive writing in the program notes, has with an expert and sensitive cast shaped a relatively spare and emotionally unencumbered rendering of this play. It is full of emotional traps and could be trivialised. It is not here. All the actors, Kathryn Beck, Helen Buday, David Carreon, Russell Dykstra, Eamon Farren, Greg Stone and Sara West – give beautifully understated and closely observed performances of gentle kindness, allowing these people they are ‘inhabiting’ just to live out their lives as written on the page without actorly comment or judgement. They allow these people to ‘be’ – they are not ‘acted’ or ‘directed’ (much). Restraint and genuine care appears to be the tone from these artists and it pays off in cumulative power. However resistant one might be to the premise of the play, its tawdry people, its subject matter or its mode of telling, and I have friends who were, I could not help but be moved to some place other than my seat in the Upstairs theatre.

The design elements are supportive, Set Design by Robert Cousins: a glossy, white surgical like set with silver accouterments gleaming reflectively for the kitchen; an unfinished room of undercoat paint for a bedroom/music room. Two rooms standing in for many, counterpointed with a retro-fifties office space, on a relentlessly moving revolve, that covers the difficult costume and set change demands of the writing (sometimes, in that sense, a screenplay rather than a theatre piece), spinning sometimes a little too long to sustain the wait of the audience in their sense of belief, no matter the assistant distraction of the melodies managed by the Sound Design of Steve Francis and Composition by Alan John. The costumes by Alice Babidge are excellent in their unobtrusive observation and character defining accuracy. The Lighting Design by Niklas Pajanti creates atmosphere and shape to the story needs.

Five interesting new plays written by women in the past year: NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH by Lally Katz; A QUIET NIGHT IN RANGOON by Katie Pollock; SPROUT by Jessica Bellamy; THIS YEAR’S ASHES by Jane Bodie;and now BABYTEETH by Rita Kalnejais. All five deal with the repercussions of death on life. Three of them, those of the major professional houses, two for the Belvoir and one for the Griffin, have a rom-com edge or sensibility. One has an exploring poetic form experiment going on and the other sits squarely in moving contemporary political events – a relative rarity in Australian playwriting. These last two in co-op houses at the Old Fitz and the New Theatre (Spare Room project).

What I pine for, beyond the above successes, and because of the great potential revealed in these writers, are new Australian plays that venture into exploring ideas deeply, and maybe challenging who some call God.

BABYTEETH, like the others, explores the life/death dilemma that is the unconscious (and for some) conscious motivating WHY of our life actions. This play has a deeper consciousness of the pain of living and a possible other life on “another shore” eased into with drug foggery. What particularly struck me was Ms Kalnejais’ casual absorption and revelation of a world filled with contemporary characters, easily recognisable, that are all dealing with this timeless meditation of death in a medicated state. All of them.

The dying daughter, perforce of her medical physicians and their prescriptions, doped to livability through pain palliatives; the mother, a prescription addict who has the convenience of a doctor as a husband to maintain and expand her needs in this trying time; a father/doctor who injects himself, we witness, with drugs to cope; a dealer/addict floating high above the current vicissitudes of a demanding life meeting with Milla, on a lifestyle of illicit drug taking; and finally a neighbour, pregnant but determined to continue the lightweight legal drugs of choice to keep herself relaxed and comfortable. All of the people (but the music teacher and his Asian student) of this world in BABYTEETH in completely unnatural states of ‘medicated’ delusions, that our modern world has made available for them to be able to go on. A brave new world indeed in our evolution.

That I, as I watched this play was, relatively, able to not judge or condemn these people and their way of coping and be moved to a place of pity without cultural alarm, has, on reflection, made me restless. That one character, Gidon (Russell Dykstra) an irascible but charming mangler of English (like the heroine of NEIGHBOURHOOD WATCH) arrests us with the ‘drug’ of music, music that may soothe the savage beast, and provide, perhaps, a primitive but historical alternative, to be able to survive tragedy, without medical intervention is a sentimental gesture – a bit of a fop – it works as a tool but not as an argument. Unless you are moved by emotional logic outbursts like this one, brilliantly played by Mr Dykstra, (who isn’t?):

“You are tearing apart. But you are trying controllings it all. Milla dyings – it is making me sad. Is so sad! The world is sad. Not because she (Milla) is this great violin. Milla is this girl with the slouching and the crazy blushing cheek. This being enough tragedy. The world should being sad. The world should stop for you and for her. But you cannot stop it. This life is playing you when you are breaking. Don’t resist it make you crazy. Sing. Play. Feel it Anna feel it. (Gesturing to the piano). Fuck fuck you scream … Anna (Taking her hands) FUCK BACK —-“

I wondered what if the end of Ms Kalenjais play was the end of Act One. I wondered what play could come in the wrestling, a disquisition in the second act with the modus operandi of this brave new world of the chemically comatose and what implications it has for our evolution. Where will it take us? What will be acceptable normality next year? Next decade? Or is this how it has always been? Etc. etc. etc. Having been recently inspired by the pleasure and wit and challenge of the writing of George Bernard Shaw’s PYGMALION, the sheer complexity (relative, of course) of the Act Five clash between Eliza and Henry, mesmerizing and cumulatively life enhancing, it seems I want more from our Australian writers than what I am getting. Do we as a culture not have it in us?

The persistent voice of the Australian writer and, perhaps appetite of the Australian audience, (or the one our Artistic choosers of plays at the company’s we attend) seems to be content with, is the relative sentimental affirmation of having the world shown to us as it is without much further interrogation. A sense of making us relaxed and comfortable with what is transpiring around us, being moved by our feelings of grateful recognition but not necessarily thoughtfully challenged about the morality of it all. The simple decency of it all.

I read Jon Robin Baitz’s new play OTHER DESERT CITIES – and see a writer growing into a stature of cultural as well as entertainment value -a play that challenges, at least his American audience, if not universally the rest of the world (I believe he does) to contemplate the cause and affect of their collective ‘power’ decisions. I read LONDON EARTHQUAKES by Mike Bartlett, I read THE HERETIC by Richard Bean, WRITTEN ON THE HEART by David Edgar and I wonder where are these equivalent writers in the Australian playwriting landscape. Certainly, Damien Millar’s play, THE MODERN INTERNATIONAL DEAD in 2008, gave me hope. Maybe, when the THYESTES creatives move on to more independent sources for their inspiration we will see it. When Nigel Jamieson finds a dramaturg he can work with more profitably we may see his world view shattering us. The promise of Daniel Keene’s THE SERPENT’S TEETH I long to see fulfilled again at that scale, further into the Australian prospect, with the same incisive courage.

These recent new Australian plays are good but mostly an anaesthesia. I would like something more. Maybe these writers are not that kind of writer and we should be grateful for what they can do. But there are others, surely? There are plays, being written, surely, that deal with  Australian culture, history and lifestyle with a seriously discriminating intelligence and offer of balanced controversial debate?

I recommend BABYTEETH. It is well done, but wish it were more, considering the talent around it – especially the actors.