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The Sea Project

Meredith Penman and Iain Sinclair – Photography by John Feely

ARTHUR and Griffin Independent present THE SEA PROJECT by Elise Hearst at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross.

THE SEA PROJECT is the second play by Elise Hearst that I have seen. The first was DIRTYLAND and it was produced by the same artistic team, ARTHUR – (at least, Director Paige Rattray; Designer, David Fleischer; Lighting Designer, Ross Graham), but at the New Theatre under THE SPARE ROOM project initiated by that company (now, already, sadly, a little defunct). THE SEA PROJECT, like DIRTYLAND, deals with the middle European emigration story, particularly after the events of the Second World War.

Eva (Meredith Penman) is discovered, naked on a remote beach, and scooped up in the sturdy arms of Bob (Iain Sinclair) to the safety of that iconically ordinary Australian man’s home – a really, gently ordinary man’s home – straightforward, uncomplicated, open and trusting, and able to provide a life without complicating questions. This home feels remote from the rest of the land, indeed, remote definitely in time, as well. This is a boat story but one from a near, but, now, romantic history-time.

Eva has no remembrance of how she got to this beach, or of any of her background at all, except her name, faintly found. She has a missing finger, a symbol of some trauma in her background …? Gradually, Eva builds a trusting life with Bob, and another mysterious figure, a boy, Samuel (Travis Cardona), who collects the debris thrown up from the ocean on the beach front, keeping a good inventory, count, of it all. Eva’s past begins to be submerged further and further, and it, in this idyllic place, becomes less and less of consequence, until one day a man, Maciek (Justin Cotta) turns up. He recognises Eva and he knows of her past and begins to present and demand that it be acknowledged. Bits of it, the joyous (music and dance) as well as the horrific (bullets in heads and a lost finger) are gradually pieced together for Eva, and a climax leading to a torn decision, is demanded of her.

There is under the auspices of Ms Rattray, Mr Fleischer and Mr Graham, a beautiful visual aesthetic – a mirrored floor with careful attention to furniture and properties additions, that takes the images to unfathomable depths, lit for atmospherics of some arrest. There is also from Ms Rattray an encouragement for the actors to play, in what I would describe as a ‘hyper-real’ style. The physical and vocal efforts of the actors are highly committed, not exaggerated, but certainly larger than naturalism, as we are usually used to, in the ‘kitchen sink’ traditions of some of our great theatre. Here, there is a kind of striking energy that has a laser like focus in its intention (maybe, it comes from an Anne Bogart influence?).

This style suits the European characters of Eva and Maciek particularly well. Mr Cotta, as Maciek, striving and achieving a physical dance-like fluidity of some elegance and beauty, whilst, vocally and facially counterpointing with suggested menace, maybe malice, perhaps just a European desperation, seemed to succeed, for me, best in this ‘hyper-realist’ mode – it, mind you, sometimes, hangs delicately on the edge of being over-the-top, but, never does, go there. Ms Penman, on the other hand seems to be in performance super conscious of the style, and its technique seems to dominate the effort of the actor, for in contrast to Mr Cotta, physically, Ms Penman’s work is full of tense muscularity, with no sense of the relaxed usage, that we need to believe unreservedly for her characterisation in this staged world to succeed, and, vocally the words are ‘spat’ out in energetic ‘bullet’ sprays with little sense of the usage of range, even volume, for contrasted build and effect. The word by word sense of revelation in the text of story and character becomes, relatively, lost, in the applied effort of stylistic focus. It becomes flatly similar in sound and ultimately exhausting to watch and audit.

Mr Sinclair, as Bob, a kind of image of the apotheosis of uncomplicated Australian security, and Mr Cardona as the enigmatic presence of the welcomer to this land, beach, Samuel, are contrastingly, gently focused and delightfully laconic in the energy of their performance choices. This is the second performance by Mr Cotta (SYNCOPATION) and Mr Sinclair (THE HIGHWAY CROSSING) I have seen this year and they have been quite memorable, on both occasions. Mr Cardona was last seen here at the Griffin in SAVAGE RIVER and the impression he gave then, is re-visited here – of note.

Ms Hearst’s play, and the storytelling tools that Ms Rattray uses, are like in their previous collaboration, DIRTYLAND, still, too obtuse for me to comfortably read, in the experience of the performance – its intentions, or even its narrative journey. It sometimes seems too deliberately opaque, and the subsequent, possible, emotional power of the story is subverted, by my having to give too much intellectual, objective consideration, to solving what is happening in front of me. For, Eva is a wonderful reminder of the startling, and humbling stories of the immigrant people about me, who have contributed to my culture and way of living, often too subtly for me to remark. I wished that I could have empathised more clearly and easily with her in the theatre.

One of the affects of knowing of Ruth, the heroine in Anna Funder’s novel, ALL THAT I AM, makes me more appreciative of the women and men about me in my shopping malls in Bondi Junction – I wonder what stories of their youth they could tell me, if I dared ask. What dangers, what risks they had to flee as refugees to the safety of Australia. I pay attention to my Vietnamese friends and their families more avidly and sympathetically. I connect to the contemporary dilemma of the ‘Boat People’ of Iraq and Afghanistan more assiduously, I can assure you. Eva, of THE SEA PROJECT, could have more readily done that for me as well, but the writing does not allow such easy comprehension. I was hampered, as well, by the live music content of Tom Hogan, both the sound and the volume, and I sometimes wished that the lighting was less ‘picture-making’ and more sensible to showing us, clearly, what was going on.

“Turn down the sound and lift the lighting”, a friend of mine in the audience summed up their night!
I believe it was more than that.

Hilary Bell: THE SPLINTER; Kendall Feaver: THE HIDING PLACE; Jane Bodie : RIDE; and now Elise Hearst : THE SEA PROJECT, compile an interesting set of plays, all in a row, to absorb in the Australian theatre writing context, here in Sydney. Interesting, indeed.