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Thomas Murray and The Upside Down River

Photo by Robert Catto

Stone Soup and Griffin Independent present, THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER, by Reg Cribb, at the SBW Stables Theatre, Kings Cross. 13 – 30 January, 2016.

THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER is a new play by Reg Cribb. Mr Cribb has created plays and screen works at a highly consistent rate. Last year, being at the creative centre of the award winning Australian film, LAST CAB TO DARWIN, based on his 2003 play. This new play seems to me the most ambitious project to date: a kind of poetic metaphor telling the story of a ‘domestic’ trio of childhood friends who in living life have struck a time of turbulent ‘drought’ with their love for each other, and like the corrupted and befouled Murray Darling River, struggling to exist in an eco-drought, even as a six inch ‘dribble’, reveals its ‘debris’, relics, and scars of history.

The sexual taboos of adultery, incest, interracial relationships are wrestled in with those of a ruthless murdering genocide and pitilessly stupid destruction of an eco-system. The story of the destruction of ‘the’ world, both civilised (so-called) and natural, under the restless journey of the dominant species of the planet, the homosapiens. The poetical themes of the play are immense and cauterising. The writing has been laboured with great care by the writer and has an abundance of layering and connective imagery (over abundance, some might question). So Ibsen-like is it in its deliberate connective tissues (textual lay-by’s) that unless it is carried by acting of a very sophisticated kind it could appear over obvious and turgid (much like Ibsen can be when misdirected!)

This production by Chris Bendall has a complex raked floor, trap-doored vision, by Set and Costume Designer, Dann Barber, with an odd draw-back theatre curtain as a backdrop, attempting to give scale, and location diversity, to a play that needs a greater space than the SBW Stables Theatre can facilitate. Something is achieved towards this illusion and it is the complex and beautiful work of Lighting Designer, Alexander Berlage, that does much, to acquit that artistic ambition. Too, the spare but atmospheric Sound Design by Kingsley Reeves adds to the impact of the desired suspension of disbelief, with quite a collage of sound resources, including original guitar compositions by Brenden Dodds.

Mr Bendall, however, does not know how to stage the physical journey of process through the provided landscape, for his principal character, Thomas, over his actual river journey, besides an up and down and around the set edges directed movement, and even more especially, when the staged movement enters into the surreal mind-state of Thomas, that conjures, amongst other things, Janice, the long dead 5 year-old sister, of his love, Lucy, into a lurid sex-‘dance’, choreographed in a cramped space in an over long exposition of a kind of madness – we know the dramaturgical inferences, we get them very quickly and one wants to shout: “Just get on with it”. This post- modernist dance interlude (a la, say, Kate Champion or Frantic Assembly) is a complete failure and derails any tension that had been developing in the final sections of the play. Monotonous and unwarranted, and on reflection more than a little uncomfortable to contemplate: a dead girl and only 5! in a sexual conjugality of some ‘steaminess’ with a much older man. No choreographer is credited.

The best acting comes from the more experienced (veterans) of the company, Nicholas Papademetriou, and most especially, Vanessa Downing, who each create three character/caricatures to serve the canvas of Mr Cribb’s story, with an acute sense of observation and restraint in selection of craft effects – vocal, physical and comic – to achieve maximum impact, without drawing too much attention to the writer’s pencil thin envisioning of them on paper. Bjorn Stewart, as the indigenous ‘wheel’ to the principal triangular love story has the charm and the heft for the young William, but does not seem to have much of a craftsman’s ‘handle’ on how to deliver the abusive parent, Lester, as a contrasted figure.

Grant Cartwright carries the biggest ‘weight’ of the writing as the ‘hero’ of the story, Thomas Murray, and unfortunately impersonates the narrative of the character’s journey without, seemingly, sufficient skills to develop the internal ‘life’ of the protagonist, Thomas, or illuminate the metaphorical poetics of Mr Cribb’s writing, opting, rather, for superficial ‘huffing’ and ‘puffing’ emotionalities, and expressing the language of the play without much ‘musical’ sophistication. – generalisations apparent; really, it’s a lack of word by word, identification, ownership and crafting of construction. While Francesca Savige, as the female centre of the main plot, Lucy, gives as best she can, playing crucial scenes without much support from Mr Cartwright. This work contrasts most singularly with her performance in last year’s SHELLSHOCK, out at Parramatta Riverside.

THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER, is a very arresting text, not successfully showcased, in this production from the Stone Soup company, for me. The issues and the poetics of this play are wonderfully ambitious and deserve to be an important part of our national conversation. Says Reg Cribb in his Writer’s Notes: “Even in this supposedly enlightened era, we live in a culture of collective amnesia … we don’t want to believe there is a price to be paid for living in the Lucky Country.” The play was originally commissioned by the Melbourne Theatre Company. It was not presented by them.

The big news Hollywood film with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy, THE REVENANT, reveals a history of an invasion of country and the consequences for all, especially the indigenous population, and, it seems, at last, becoming part of a Nation’s conversation. That nation is the USA. What next for Australia? Rohan Wilson’s two great Australian novels: THE ROVING PARTY (2011) and TO NAME THOSE LOST (2014), two Tasmanian stories, that ought to be front and centre of our nation’s conversation, I reckon. Too controversial? Too powerful? Hmmmm.

Go, read for yourself to see what I mean.

Go see, THOMAS MURRAY AND THE UPSIDE DOWN RIVER by Reg Cribb, and see why the play, if not this production, is important and worth knowing.

P.S. from the program notes: This Equity Approved Showcase Production is performed by professional actors and creative artists. For this season the performers and the creatives are unwaged.