AIR is the latest work by Sydney playwright Joanna Erskine, the 2016 winner of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Young Playwrights Award and currently Head of Education at Bell Shakespeare. The piece is currently having its world premiere season at Newtown’s Old 505 Theatre.
AIR is the story of Annabel (Eloise Snape), a seemingly-introverted woman who hosts the graveyard shift on Sydney Community Radio, reading out the death notices. It follows Annabel’s broadcasts over several evenings and, gradually, the silent audience to whom she reads begin to talk back to her. Listeners attempt to engage Annabel in conversation about deceased loved ones or, in the case of widow Mabel (Diana McLean), try to use her as a conduit to deliver messages to those who’ve passed.
But as time progresses, and more callers reach out to her, events force Annabel to confront the grief she carries and its source. Her estranged older sister, Susan (Suzanne Pereira), phones in one evening and tries to convince Annabel to reconnect with family members she hasn’t seen nor communicated with for decades. That estrangement stems from the circumstances surrounding the death of her father, Kevin (David Lynch). As the world outside – and beyond – slowly fills the cosy studio, its impact on Annabel is profound.
Erskine has penned an engrossing and darkly comedic work that examines the process of grieving, the different ways in which people respond to grief, and the innate perpetuity of grief. It also considers the triggers that force grief to the surface after lying dormant for extended periods. What AIR conveys with crystal clarity is the idea of grief as a great unifier; as people share their grief with others and the stories of the losses they’ve suffered, they form bonds and can find strength that was previously inaccessible. Rather than attempting to repress feelings of grief, inviting those around us to understand our grief can be a means of breathing new life into our existences.
Confronting death is a truly universal predicament and the characters Erskine has created will likely resonate with most. For Mabel, sharing her grief is a means of revealing to the world her late husband’s true colours; for John Dean, it’s a means by which to make a connection with another person; and for Annabel, it is something that she’s long refused to allow herself to feel.
Snape is wonderful in her portrayal of Annabel as a wary, withdrawn and damaged young woman, and her gradual reveal of the character’s pain is completely convincing. Snape also showcases a terrific radio voice. McLean is endearing and demonstrates strong comedic timing as the spirited Mabel, while Benjamin’s performance as the idiosyncratic and apparently directionless John Dean is also impressive. Rounding out the cast as Annabel’s sister and father respectively, Pereira and Lynch are strong in their roles.
Director Anthony Skuse keeps the physical production simple, ensuring no distraction from the characters and their interactions and allowing Erskine’s well-crafted text to remain our constant focus. Ben Freeman’s thoughtful sound design is an integral component and proves the perfect complement to the production throughout.
AIR is not only highly enjoyable, but an experience that remains with you long after leaving the auditorium, prompting reflection on our capacity to deal effectively with grief (and, indeed, what “dealing effectively with grief” even means). Erskine’s light-hearted look at one of life’s great certainties reminds us that most experiences in life – and death – are better shared.
AIR – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: Old 505 Theatre (5 Eliza Street, Newtown)
Season: Playing now until 30 June, 2018
Times: Tue – Sat 8:00pm
Price: $45 Premium Adults* / $40 Adults / $30 Concession, Industry & Under 30 /
* Premium Adult patrons will be given first choice of seating each performance night. As well as securing the best seats in the house, it gives you a chance to invest further in the development of the work you are seeing and allows the Old 505 Theatre to continue to be a vital incubation space for new work.