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Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

Belvoir and La Boite Theatre Company present, SAMSON, by Julia-Rose Lewis, in the Belvoir St Downstairs Theatre, Surry Hills. 7May – 31 May.

SAMSON, is a new Australian play, by Julia-Rose Lewis. It is a first play and was ‘read’ at the National Play Festival, presented by Playwriting Australia, at Carriageworks, in June 2014. I felt that there has been some further development of the text since last year, when I first saw it.

The play tells of four young Australians, living in ‘an edge suburb of Australia’, on the cusp of adulthood, and facing all of those responsibilities and social adjustments that accompany those turning points. Coping with the death of one of their kith, and the expectancy of a new child, these young adolescents begin to consider/question the existence of God and the dawning of the acceptance of their own independent ‘selves’, to make choices, that will pilot them securely into the river of life – some learn and do, and some don’t. (I don’t know why, but I kept thinking of Craig Silvey’s novel, JASPER JONES, while watching this play.)

SAMSON is a much better play than this production revealed.

The Director, Kristine Landon-Smith, seems to work in the belief that a play, and the act of impersonating it in the theatre, is to create ‘real life’. Surely, the way of the ‘theatre’ – whatever the medium, film/television -is that it looks like real life and is not, surprisingly, actually it. What we see in good theatre experiences is an objective construct of a life-truth story, made by skilful artists, a convincing ‘lie’. That is the age old, unspoken but trusted ‘magic’ contract between the artist and the audience. The experience that the ‘extraordinary’ (the artist) creates for the ‘ordinary’ (the audience) through convincing cheating i.e. acting. An actor is a storyteller. Not a purveyor of emotional states. He/she tell stories, just as their mum, teacher did for them, when they were babies: “Once upon time, there were three bears … “, imagine with me … invent from the clues I give you, crafting the performance with my body and voice. Voice and body. Both. Not one, or the other, but both. If it is a play – theatre play or screenplay – it is the manner in which the voice is ‘manipulated’ that is the paramount tool of communication. And, certainly, nobody cares about what you are feeling: show up, play the scene clearly, speak up, so that the audience can understand the play.

Ms Landon-Smith has cast a group of young actors that have all the physical qualities of a cultural diversity that represents modern Australia. The visual presence of these actors is immensely pleasing and impressive, and reflects the ‘real life’ experience of living in Australia – rarely seen on either Australian stages, or even in our television/film products: Benjamin Creek, Ashleigh Cummings, Belinda Jombwe and Charles Wu. What Ms Landon-Smith encourages from these young actors is a truthful physical response to the actions of the text – a ‘real life’ one – and some of those physical dynamics created by these actors were beautiful to ‘read’ – the mimic skills of body and face were, mostly, detailed and clear (if not, for me, always true.)

However, what none of these actors, under the guidance of Ms Landon-Smith do, is communicate the spoken words – the text – to an audience. They communicate one to one at a close, private reality, and not beyond their own presence, not to the audience in the theatre. It seemed to be an encouraged utterance of poor clarity from actors with essentially inarticulate skills – and, certainly, the lack of skills or seeming lack of skills, compounded the problem. This production was never connected to or for the audience – it was as if we were not meant to be there, that we were intruders that had stumbled onto an unfolding drama in the Belvoir Downstairs Theatre.

We caught only verbalised bits and pieces of the of the text, of the actual written text – only a verbal gist of what was at stake. Ms Landon-Smith was content to allow Mr Creek (Rabbit), to speak with a clarity capacity of only, to be generous, three of every ten words – he does not seem to have the verbal gifts of a storyteller/an actor, no verbal articulators at all, and his physical life, his miming (dance) skills and personable charm, were not compensations enough. Ms Lewis’ writing details were basically made incomprehensible. Ms Cummings (Essie), an established television/film actor, has not been assisted to translate those gifts to the theatre – often shouting, leading to a rasping-damaged sound emotionally generalising, gabbling her words, phrases and speechs, which as the principal protagonist of the play did not bode well for the audience (this was true of her efforts with this text, a year ago, at the ‘reading’ of the play, in a much larger space, too.) While Ms Jombwe (Beth) has no sense of range or word control – naturalistic ‘babbling’ – and Mr Wu (Sid) often sounded forced and pushed with the climatic efforts of his character’s journey. With no voices apparent or sufficiently capable of telling the story, to communicate clearly the written words of Ms Lewis play, what we as an audience were forced to do was read the revelation of the characters, the plot of the journey, through the physical ‘offers’. We were given a mere gist of the spoken text to assist us to decipher what was happening and why. It did not appear that any of these actors had the required skills to deliver the writer’s words for the audience and it did not seem that Ms Landon-Smith concerned herself with the basic need for them to do so. None of these actors revealed a level of vocal skill that the theatre, as a form, requires.

SAMSON is staged on a squashed-in set of raised platforms (having also acted as a solution for another space for the La Boite season in Brisbane) ,in the small Downstairs space, (Set & Costume Design by Michael Hili), making for a very noisy floor when the actors are asked to move about it, which is often, to create the illusion of walking across a landscape. Lighting Design is by Ben Hughes. Composition and Sound Design, competing with the noise from the Upstairs Theatre, is by Kim Bowers.

Acting is a craft that requires an objective focus and concentration of the basic ‘animal’ skills of the actor’s instrument: body and voice. The actor needs to be in command of both. With only one of these gifts considered by Ms Landon-Smith as being essential, a body, from these young artists, the potential of this play was ruined, for me. One hopes that a different production of SAMSON, will reveal the promise of this young writer’s gifts. For it wasn’t here.

From David Mamet’s collection of essays in the book titled, THEATRE, published in 2010:

Speak up. … The playwright wrote the lines to be said out loud. Here is the corollary: Hit the final consonant. Most actors, lacking good diction, swallow their consonants and the last two words of the sentence. Many think this is being natural. But there is nothing natural about being onstage. You’re there to put on a play. Speak up, and speak out. … When its time to speak, speak out. Commit yourself to the phrase, and you commit to the play. That’s all there is.

I couldn’t agree more, sir.

P.S. This production Downstairs at Belvoir suffered from the terrible noise seeping, coming from the sound system and players in the Upstairs Theatre (THE WIZARD OF OZ). At one stage during SAMSON, some of the lighting system in the Downstairs Theatre was actually vibrating from the intrusive noise waves. Had the Artistic Company anticipated this, or had attempted to find an equitable solution for both shows  that were performing at the same time. It was a great distraction to what was going on in SAMSON. for the audience. When OZ had finished Upstairs, the relative quiet was most remarkable, tangible.