The Hayloft Project is a multi-award winning theatrical ensemble, making a name for themselves since 2007 when founder Simon Stone created exciting, challenging work that stimulated Melbourne’s independent theatre scene. Having left 18 months ago for an associate director’s gig at Sydney’s Belvoir Street theatre, the pressure has been placed on new Artistic Director Anne-Louise Sarks to continue an enviable legacy.
The company’s credo is “to create intelligent, passionate, visceral theatre that lives long in the memory”. Judging by their latest offering, they have achieved most of those aims. The adaption tells Sophocles’ tale of Philoctetes, the wounded soldier abandoned on the desolate island of Lemnos for 10 years with the bow of the god Heracles. Neoptolemus and Odysseus arrive to convince him, by whatever means possible, to return to Greece to fulfill a prophecy that will win them the war against the Trojans. Neoptolemus attempts to instill trust to win over Philoctetes whereas Odysseus uses cunning and deceit. Philoctetes, it should be noted, has basically gone insane. Isolation, abandonment and a festering wound caused by a snake bite has created a man pushed over the edge. His torment is aided by a crow whom he wounded and seems hellbent on his demise, just waiting for the man to die so that she may eat him.
Visually the production is stark yet absolutely stunning. Utilising white, blacks and grays on a vast bare stage, it at once evokes feelings of isolation and barrenness. These are aided by a sublime soundscape by Alister Mew, virtually continuous in its aim to unnerve the viewer and almost allowing us into Philoctetes’ mind with more power than even the actor and director’s efforts. Zoe Rouse complemented her set design with effective and appropriate costuming that continue the set’s themes. There were moments where I felt like I was watching a charcoal drawing come to life. Lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw was also incredibly evocative in its simplicity, allowing moments of clarity and beauty to contrast with the aforementioned elements of despair and bleakness.
Acting was uniformly strong and in some instances, thrilling. Brian Lipson’s Odysseus was a study in contrasts. This experienced actor powerfully expressed the duplicity of his character and managed to unearth the dynamics of the script and his role which allowed the audience to perhaps connect with him more than any other character. He found the much-needed comedy without it jarring amongst the tension. He had a commanding presence much missed by this observer when not on stage. Likewise, Naomi Rukavina’s Neoptolemus was a masterclass in theatrical strength and style, giving us a stunning, understated performance that allowed for a slight hint of danger that made her thrilling and, dare I say, disturbing to witness. Christopher Brown had the incredibly tricky role of the deranged Philoctetes and for the most part, his intensity and physical expression was compelling. He was hampered on occasion by dialogue that almost turned his character into a buffoon and thus slightly diminished our sympathies for this poor twisted soul. But this was not the fault of the actor, merely from a script that jarred in places and seemed to not know what it wanted to be. Completing the cast was the divine presence of Haiha Le as the Crow. Allowing total control and intense focus, she was perfectly cast in a role that could have been a throwaway and yet Haiha quietly dominated the stage throughout the proceedings. It’s not easy displaying an equal amount of menace and poise but this stunning actress showed how easy it could be achieved.
In publicity for the show, the creators have talked of themes of a society weary of war and its leaders and of a society’s rejection and fear of mental illness. After witnessing the show, I would say they are tenuous links. These may be prevalent in Sophocles’ writings but this adaption blurs the story’s purpose. Benedict Hardie has taken a particularly slight piece, classic or not, and filled it with contradictions. On one hand I found myself utterly moved by the poetry of silent moments, the wit of some of the contemporary dialogue and the breath-taking power of some the performances. At other times, I basically got bored, thinking that what I was witnessing was filler, or moments that started to be clever for clever’s sake. And as the show went for just over 60 minutes, I’m disappointed that I felt that way. I wanted my moments of exhilaration to be all-encompassing for the entire show. It did not, however, diminish my overall appreciation of the piece. I think the visual presentation, along with the sublime performances, is where the success of this production lies, and in that department, the success was immense and worth witnessing.
“Intelligent, passionate, visceral theatre” - it was. “That lives long in the memory” - I’m not so sure.