Afterplay by Brian Friel is a One Act piece filled with fantasy and longing. First premiering at the Gale Theatre in Dublin in 2002 it features two of Chekhov’s characters from some of his most masterful work. Sonya Serebriakoya from Uncle Vanya and Andrey Prozorov from Three Sisters chance to meet one night in a Moscow café and break bread together, some twenty years after we last saw them in their respective stories. They tell one another all manner of wonderfulness, each weaving a fantasy of what life might have become for them, but while Andrey through some guilting and drink readily admits that he is only telling “fables” and “small lies”, Sonya clings on to the hope that her fantasies may yet come to pass. It is an intimate and beautiful story of longing, folly, courage, comfort and perhaps most of all, hope.
Produced by Room To Play – a wonderfully fresh and inventive company – whose mandate for producing independent theatre is alive and well with their production of Afterplay. Their motto pegs the brand as up close, personal, and feisty and they absolutely deliver a punch in this show that is equal parts hilarious, historic, and moving. The quiet gentle flirtations between Andrey and Sonya, counter pointed by a wonderful “who cares, this is life, let’s make the most of it, have another vodka”, and shadowed by the dogged uneasiness of their half spoken truths, and the moments their realities come crashing back in on them like a wave that is very reminiscent of a changing Russia that neither character understands entirely. This show works so well in an intimate space where the actors have immediate access to their audience and don’t have to worry about “playing” to a fuller house and in the Paddington Substation Gallery they found a wonderful place to call home. The venue, which has been converted into an art gallery with a café, seats at most 50 people in the audience, squeezed in tightly, with the front row less than a foot from the stage, is perfect for this type of theatre and Afterplay’s director Heidi Manche makes wonderful use of it.
Manche, a seasoned director, studied not only in Australia (Sydney Film School), but also abroad with a scholarship to Italy to study with Nobel Laureate Dario Fo. There she studied Commedia dell’arte and Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, and it is both this and her experience with film direction that shine through in this production. Manche works to create an atmosphere that is intimate and distancing, always leaving the audience slightly uncomfortable and unsure of where they are supposed to be heading. Her use of the space is excellent, and she leans into the limitations of a smaller, cramped venue rather than trying to shy away from them. The interaction between the characters is nuanced and soft, almost intimate, and feels strongly as if you are sitting in your living room looking through the lens of a camera into someone else’s life and while the audience enjoyed every moment of it, there was a definite sense of not wanting to intrude. The Substation Gallery became almost another character in the play under Manche’s direction, as the awkward, bragging, truth telling, lie spinning, grandiose Andrey (Wayne Bassett) would fixedly study the wall next to him or play with a pipe running up to the ceiling while he confessed a half truth to his dinner companion.
As the embattled, broken, and defiantly effervescent Andrey Prozorov, Bassett excels. A veteran Queensland actor with a diverse stage and screen career, Bassett expertly makes the audience laugh out loud with his buffoonish attentions to Sonya (Emma Skelton). He allows the vulnerability of his complex character to shine through and when he breaks, letting the floodgates come down and barely holds back the tears discussing the fate of his son and the lengths he has gone to to try and shield both of his children from the bitterness of life, a part of the audience breaks for him. He dances the tight rope of emotions effortlessly and gives a sterling performance full of wonderful nuance. A special moment was at the end of the “vodka” scene when he forlornly looks into his cup hoping for more, and then delicately dips his finger into the bottom to wipe out the last of the drink, before sucking on his finger absent mindedly. Bassett’s bombastic energy lets him make full use of the small space, even jumping up onto the chairs to make a toast and he charmingly upsets the delicate balance of Skelton’s Sonya.
A perfect foil to Bassett’s energy is Skelton, who is a marvel of stillness and strength. She patiently sits and waits for him to reveal himself, allows him to climb all over the set and all the while she sits, and is calm, and in her own way incredibly private almost until the very last. As the show unfolds she begins to relax, and shares her hopes and fears, opens up to Andrey about her newfound financial situation, and her bafflement at how what used to come so easily to her, now seems so hard and distant. In a great many ways she is the most honest person on the stage and is certainly forthcoming, however at the end of the story she is the only one who is left clinging to an illusion. Hoping that with her fortitude and courage she can will herself through it, and Skelton plays this moment to the hilt. Her vulnerability, passion and certainty in the face of her own false beliefs make for the performance of the night, simultaneously leaving the audience rallying to her, and distanced from her. A particular delight is her face off with “the gorgon”, a never seen barmaid who Skelton charges off stage to confront while a blustering Bassett merely goes through the motions of being affronted.
The whole show is performed in a tiny corner of the room, on a slightly raised staging, with the merest hints and suggestions of the set played out – a table and two chairs, and a simple window setting behind them. The set is simple but incredibly effective in the space and is wonderfully created by production designer Desley Martin. Likewise, the costuming elements are effective, and authentic to the time period. Martin’s design creates a space that is intimate and hints at a larger world around, and does it all on a shoe string. It is a testament to the notion that sometimes less really is more and many bigger companies could benefit from a look at this kind of theatre.
This production as a whole is a beacon to the Brisbane theatre scene that independent theatre is alive and well, they are dedicated to working with and promoting local independent talent. Afterplay is a delight and an incredible journey to take in a single hour and as a company, Room to Play is definitely a company to watch.