Phillip James Rouse is the founder and artistic director of Don’t Look Away, a company devoted to showcasing the work of Australian playwrights. In a co-production with bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, Don’t Look Away is currently presenting Night Slows Down, a brand new work and the first play Rouse has penned himself.
Rouse wrote the piece immediately after Donald Trump’s election to the US presidency last year and also took inspiration from experiences growing up in Melbourne’s suburbs. Night Slows Down is a cautionary tale about an English-speaking country governed by far right extremists (no specific location is identified). In this future society, the lives of civil engineer, Sharon (Danielle King), her partner of Middle Eastern descent, Martin (Johnny Nasser), and her brother, Seth (Andre de Vanny) fundamentally change.
Following the installation of the new government, Sharon and Martin are ripped apart, as Martin is suddenly detained indefinitely and Sharon is prevented from any access to him. This is a rapidly decaying society in which human rights violations are rife, and political dissent is no longer acceptable (reminiscent of the dystopian Oceania in Orwell’s 1984). Within the new administration, Seth is promoted to a key role, and his endorsement of the new regime plays an integral role in destroying his relationship with his sister, who is a fierce opponent of what is occurring and is forced to watch as the government brings out her brother’s worst traits.
Throughout the piece, the contemporary activity is interspersed with flashback scenes, which continue to regress further back in time as the show progresses. The flashback scenes are vital in establishing certain key facts. Firstly, we see the ordinariness of Sharon’s and Martin’s relationship, and the archetypal, law-abiding existence that Martin leads. But, more importantly, these sequences afford us the opportunity to witness the transformation of Seth from a relatively ordinary man (but with a few racist ideas bubbling beneath the surface) into a fully-fledged subscriber to far right wing ideologies, endorsing and even executing extreme policies. It’s a frightening reminder of how easily such a transformation can occur; of how an opportunistic government can exploit one’s racist and ignorant views, in order to illicit their assent to truly objectionable policies and procedures.
While Trump’s election was the catalyst for Rouse’s decision to write the piece, Night Slows Down also reminds us of other events in international politics, including the movement behind Dutch politician Geert Wilders, whose right-wing populist Party for Freedom came second in The Netherlands’ 2017 election. Additionally, there was the significant support in France behind the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, who similarly finished second in the final round of voting in the country’s May election. All of these recent events speak to the relevance of Rouse’s story to the contemporary world.
A strong trio has been assembled to perform this work. Sharon is the voice of reason in the story, and King’s portrayal of the character is passionate and convincing; de Vanny delivers as the villain, who seems increasingly irredeemable as the show progresses; and Nasser is sympathetic and brings wonderful believability to his performance as Martin.
Anna Gardiner’s and Martelle Hunt’s simple stage design means the traverse stage can be everything it needs to be over the course of the evening – an office building, a home, and at one point, it feels as though it could be room 101 in Orwell’s Ministry of Love. And on top of his playwriting and directorial duties, Rouse has created an effective soundscape for the play, while Sian James-Holland’s lighting choices are similarly successful.
Clocking in at 75 minutes, this is not a play that lingers on stage any longer than it should. But while it’s deliberately vague in respect of many of its details, there is perhaps room to add to the back stories of each character, particularly Seth and the origins of the racist beliefs he’s long harboured (the experiences in life that have led him to differ in his views from the sister with whom he grew up).
That said, this is a good start for Rouse as a playwright and succeeds in its endeavours to be a piece of thought-provoking theatre. Not only does it prompt one to question the circumstances that could lead to the perfect storm for a far right takeover of power, but also to think about the role one would play if such a situation was to play out – whether that be passive bystander, enabler or facilitator, or an active voice of dissent.
NIGHT SLOWS DOWN – SEASON DETAILS
When: Playing now until 9 December
Times: Tues – Sat at 7.30pm; Sundays at 5pm
Tickets: Adult $35 | Concession $30 | Previews and Cheap Tuesday $25
Where: KXT – Kings Cross Theatre – Level 2, Kings Cross Hotel, Kings Cross
More information and bookings: www.bakehousetheatrecompany.com.au