Skip to main content

Low Level Panic

Photo by Julia Robertson

Thread Entertainment in association with Red Line Productions, present LOW LEVEL PANIC, by Clare McIntyre, at the Old Fitz Theatre, Dowling St. Woolloomooloo. 12 July – 12 August.

LOW LEVEL PANIC, was written by Clare McIntyre, and presented at the Royal Court Theatre, in London in 1988. It is an examination of the low level panic that some women may feel by just ‘being’ in the world with the omnipresence of pornography and its possible construction for human behaviour. It traces the re-action of one of the characters to a sexual assault. The play was famous, especially, in its era, for the complex relationships that the three characters, Jo (Amy Ingram), Mary (Kate Skinner) and Celia (Geraldine Hakewill) have with their own sexual fantasies and bodies. For me, the play has the familiarities of the explorations of say Pam Gems with her play DUSA, FISH, STAS AND VI (1976), and Nell Dunn’s STEAMING (1982-84).

Justin Martin, the Director of this production at the Old Fitz, and the choreographer, Tom Hodgson, had already made this show in 2014, for the Nun’s Island Theatre in Galway. Reading the reviews of that production, it seems that what are we are seeing here is a recreation of that solution to the play. Originally, the play is a straight forward prose-text for three women. What Mr Martin has done, probably influenced by the work of John Tiffany (National Theatre of Scotland) and Stephen Hoggett (Frantic Assembly), especially, is to re-write the text as a musical with, besides the three women, a chorus of seven male participants (Joshua McElroy, Caleb Alloway, Luke Carson, Patrick Cullen, Scott Eveleigh, David Lang, Brendon Taylor) and a young girl figure who maybe the girl before her growth to womanhood (Zoe Belfast or Sophia Marosszeky or Mathilda Richardson).

It is potentially, a witty adaptation of the original play and it may have been that in the Irish production. It was probably fitted around the talents – gifts – of those participants and illuminated Ms McIntyre’s intentions. At the Old Fitz, however, the production grinds on as a Director’s indulgence that rather than revealing the politics of the play and its undoubted relevance to present day sexual issues, buries and obfuscates it. For instance, the monologue that the character, Mary has, concerning her brutal sexual assault – a famous and oft-used monologue for audition, by the way – has been turned into a musical song that Mary sings while accompanying herself on guitar. In this instance, Ms Skinner as Mary, does not appear to have much talent with the guitar and does not, similarly, have much gift in being able to ‘sing’ well enough – that is confidently – and, as a result, the comprehensibility of this very important speech is almost zilch! – barely, even a gist of the information. Again, Mr Martin, has used his Composer’s song (Claire Healey) from the original Irish production, along with a Broadway-style male chorus dance, to close act one. Ms Hakewill, as Celia, too, did not seem to have the vocal equipment to over come the volume of the music accompaniment and, as well, negotiate her choreography with ease, to be able to communicate to us with clarity the text of her song – it remains a mystery, what she was singing, what was going on, except as a Director’s demonstration of a love for the musical theatre form of dance! Too, the choreography using the young girl, as a reminder of the girl who is now a woman of suffering, with the Frantic Assembly famed dance-gesture, also fails to make its marks clearly here. The other characters, too, have dance quotations, every now and again. The flourishes of this Director’s work seem to be imposed on these Australian actors rather than it being an organic exploration from his new collaborators. If the inventions of the Director cannot be acquitted by his chosen Australian cast maybe for the sake of the clarity of Ms McIntyre’s play they should have been let go – it’s effect is that of a wilful vandalism of the original play. The Design, created by Jonathan Hindmarsh, for Thread Entertainment and Red Line at the Old Fitz, as striking as it is, seems incredibly impressed by the original concepts from Ireland.

However, even if one can overlook the Director’s inclinations as a show-biz entertainer, his work with his actors is not very sympathetic, for it has resulted in what one could charge as ‘bad’ musical theatre caricature. Ms Ingram, playing Jo, gives a knowing and skilful ‘performance’ – a ‘performance’ – all superficial clueing to the developments of the character’s experience but without more than an inch deep truth – there is not much acting going on here, it is rather a show-offy look-at-me ‘performance’. Ms Ingram barely talks or attempts to communicate to her partners onstage either as a character in the play, or even as an actor to another actor, and she is never affected by what they are saying and doing one iota, as she has seemed to have mapped out her ‘juicy’ opportunity in her Sydney debut, no matter what her collaborators are attempting to offer to her to be part of an ensemble. This work from Ms Ingram, is something like what some Shakespearean character says: is a tale full of sound and fury (comedy) signifying nothing. Ms Skinner has been lumbered with a song that does not sit easily within her skills, so delivers the essential information about the sexual assault Mary experiences, not well enough for us to comprehend, to fully appreciate, her character’s principal dilemma. And, on top of that, has to do most of her work with a, mostly, absent partner, Ms Ingram. Ms Hakewill, in the least developed of the roles, Celia, is much used by the Director as a living and breathing figure of possible live pornography. As innocent as Celia maybe to her affect – it’s repetition becomes more and more uncomfortable to view as the night wears on.

LOW LEVEL PANIC is a play deserving to be seen almost 30 years after its origin. The sexual low level panic of the female of the species is no less intense than it was then. But this production at the Old Fitz does not give it due regard.

P.S. It seems ironic to me that the name of the writer of this play, Clare McIntyre, appears only on the cover of the program and that there is no biographical information at all of her career. She is, after all, the inspiration of all this endeavour and she has something important to say and continued to say it with her other work, which this production company has kept us ignorant of.  (Mr Martin’s name appears three times, at least). The rest of the artistic team are, as well, explicated quite extensively.