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The Rolling Stone

Photo by Clare Hawley

Outhouse Theatre Co and the Seymour Centre presents, THE ROLLING STONE, by Chris Urch, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre, Chippendale. 5th – 21st July.

THE ROLLING STONE is an Award winning British play, by Chris Urch, written in 2014.

This play is set in Uganda, and concerns the dilemmas of a fundamental Christian family: three siblings, Dembe (Elijah Williams), his sister, Wummie (Zufi Emerson), both promising students, and Pastor brother, Joe (Mandela Mathia), when the youngest, 18 year old Dembe, realises his homosexuality. By Ugandan law it is the family’s duty to denounce Dembe to the authorities, and urged by a zealous member of the congregation, Mama (Nancy Denis), face the strain of making a public declaration in a superstitious society where terror and murder reigns for the ‘outsider’, the ‘other’.

Dembe has never been happier than in his relationship with an older man, Sam (Damon Manns), a Doctor, who has a mixed heritage of an Irish father and Ugandan mother, who has volunteered to work in Uganda as part of his medical internship. Dembe, is drawn into the vortex of a crisis of faith, when he can no longer see, hear or feel God, and, so declares, “How can I believe in God when he doesn’t believe in me?” Being a ‘Kucha’ (homosexual) is the mark of the devil and must be destroyed. Dembe is torn between his family loyalties and duties and a possible escape with his lover.

Chris Urch’s play has the possible melodrama of this situation harnessed with an intelligent (poetical) control of the ethical intellectual propositions that this family faces in this hostile community. Adam Cook, the Director, has a cool hand and clear focus to deliver this scorching text that, as in a good production of Arthur Miller’s THE CRUCIBLE, balances the emotional narrative with the serious cerebral debate, of the place of the ‘Devil’ in the centre of a febrile cultural invention.

In this Mr Cook is aided with an abstracted Set Design – a raised central platform, surrounded by yellow sand in front of a dominating blue back wall with traditional framed entrance spaces on either of the sides – and a naturalistic, minimal Costume Design from Isabel Hudson. With a gentle hazed space the Lighting Design, by Sian James-Holland, creates a crisp feel to the heat of the drama on the stage in its many changes of location, supported by an often near subliminal Sound Composition and Design, by Nate Edmondson (and Ryan Devlin).

At the centre of this production is a magnificent performance by a young actor, Elijah Williams, as Dembe. Mr Williams first came to my startled attention in a production of BLACK JESUS, at the Kings Cross Theatre, where he carried the lead, and there followed a minor support in ANTIGONE. Mr Williams has the power of a visceral focus and the daring to ‘personalise’ and imaginatively expand it to seem to experience the demands of the writer in a completely ‘possessed’ state. (Acting is Possession.) And,  as well, it is imbued with an instinctual subtlety that vibrates from his ‘centre’ every second he is on stage with the proffered action of the character’s journey. It is a riveting and, I suspect, after watching his exhausted recovery during the curtain call, costly contribution to the vivid storytelling of Dembe’s collision with his nature and his societal taboos. ( As an actor, and acting teacher, I hope someone is caring for Mr Williams, as what he gave us on Saturday night, was a great ‘sacrifice’, but not possible to sustain every performance without risk of harm to his gifts. Mr Williams is not a trained actor and at the moment is performing from sheer instinctual forces – there is a ‘craft’ that can keep him safe and to ensure a career longevity, for such talent is rare, indeed, and needs wise nurturing.) Mr Williams is special. A sensation.

But this company, all, make completely assured and ‘owned’ performances, with Mr Manns, revealing subtly, the naivety and sexual selfishness of a first world individual, Sam, making unfair and culturally ignorant demands in a third world predicament; Ms Emerson delivering the empathetic but ‘tortured’ problem of a sophisticated young woman in a society of traditional patriarchal domination and superstition – she desires and has the capacity to be a scientist; of Mr Mathia’s ambitious Pastor of Christ, Joe, twisted into a place of doctrinal cant at the expense of his humanity; of Ms Denis in her scarifying Christian zealot, Mama, ignoring her own hypocrisies to maintain the vanity of having community power and admiration; and a simply beautiful physical performance, without text, of Henrietta Amevor, as Naome, a woman traumatised to silence because of her own ‘outsiderness’ in an unforgiving society of strict rules and traditions.

Australia recently voted in favour of Same Sex Marriage – but do not believe that is a safe assureity in a world agitated by some Christian adherents and ideologically-driven zealots. Look at our demonisation of the refugee in our own country, and note the faith based leaders of those policies. We are, daily, witness to the policies of Donald Trump and the Republicans in their scarifying of the Mexican border – find a weak minority target and demonise. THE ROLLING STONE is as relevant for us today, in Australia, as it is to Uganda, to Great Britain. In Russia, while we are watching and celebrating the FIFA World Cup Soccer games, homosexuals are under surveillance and subject to government laws that require the community to report, under threat of self-criminalisation, if you don’t, the homosexuals in their community, whether resident or tourist! Closer to home, Malayasia and Indonesia, the Phillipines, have such societal threats to the humanity and lives of some of its communities. To give power to a majority at the expense of the ‘other’ is a usual ploy of some authorities to maintain power dominance – recall the minority victims in the Nazi maintenance mechanisms for their power.

THE ROLLING STONE, is a powerful play, and in this production from OUTHOUSE – Artistic Director, Jeremy Waters – continues that Company’s spot-on curatorial eye to the important International plays and writers that we in Sydney, would otherwise not encounter. This company and the Red Line Company at the Old Fitz, seem to be covering an important cultural perspective, for Sydney audiences, on great and important writing from the contemporary International scene that is rather neglected, otherwise, by our major subsidised flag ship companies – the STC and Belvoir. How many Andrew Upton adaptations of the Russian classics (usually emasculated) do we need to see? Really, how many Caryl Churchill plays do we need to see? And if we do, could we not see her more recent repertoire in the stead of revival productions, which have been covered, and are being covered (often well) by such independent collectives as the New Theatre. Really did we need a stage production of Peter Carey’s BLISS? – there is a film, an opera, already.

THE ROLLING STONE,  is as much a ‘must see’ as THE FLICK, was, a few weeks ago.

Do not miss.