Control review by Natasha Boyd

***stars

Control by Keziah Warner and directed by Julian Meyrick was a wildly unexpected and thought provoking world premiere. Red Stitch’s commitment not just to giving opportunities to new and young actors, but also fostering writers and directors (with Shaun Wykes on board as graduate assistant director) is to be highly commended. Their INK programme has allowed Warner’s unique voice to be nurtured by dramaturg Tom Healey, and provided a platform for raising contemporary issues in three starkly different futuristic settings Her concerns with technology, perception, and ultimately, control (or lack thereof) are imaginatively fleshed out for four actors playing various roles over a number of loosely connected decades. Staged over three acts for 90 minutes without an interval, it’s a ponderous ride, with elements of humour and both naturalistic and non naturalistic stylings.

The four actors Christina O’Neill, Dushan Philips, Samuel Rowe & Naomi Rukavina are all challenged vocally, physically and emotionally to bring something new to each of the roles. Initially we see this quartet as participants in a reality TV show hurtling towards a new life on Mars. The opening danger scene was unfortunately thrown off kilter by an excessively loud sound design that troubled a couple of the actors’ opening dialogue. The urgency of the moment – a spaceship in crisis was clear, but the male voices in particular were not. As we flashed back to the moments building up to the imminent disaster we are introduced to a heavily pregnant ex-ballerina (O’Neill), a bitter puppeteer (Philips), pop princess Laura (Rukavina) and Aussie larrikin Jake (Rowe) with the world watching and voting on their every move. Channelling the Big Brother modern screen concept the timing of the sound operator with all the dinging and buzzing to acceptable or unacceptable interview answers was impeccable, aiding the comedy punch required for these short sharp scenes. Challenges set by the audience allowed for additional moments of intentional play acting; the amorous flirtations between Laura and Jake where she declares “You may be the last face I see” was a gem. The women’s deliberate over-sharing and exaggeration of their past lives was another highlight. Quick slick set changes kept the pace moving, however, the interconnection between the four actors in these roles was not fully realised.

A clever jump to Act Two set several decades later back on Earth was structurally a great choice to keep the momentum and interest going. Rowe’s transfer from Jake in the previous scene to his brother Xavier here is where he really shone- displaying real depth between his comic interactions and his sincere earnestness. Philips likewise showed stronger craftsmanship in establishing his AI surveyor, Alex. The concept of a museum for storing childhood memories, was like a mash of The Final Cut meets Eternal Sunshine and allowed the elements of secrecy and erasure to be explored – a discarding of all things unpleasant, but at a cost. The hand swipes and automated caller responses were creative and well executed. These concerns explored by museum workers Nicki (O’Neill) and Caroline (Rukavina) highlighted their range of character embodiment and was most impressive, especially the risks that Nicki will take for her daughter Isabelle. The chemistry between all four in this section resonated much more strongly.

Act 3 changes pace again, with a female centred two hander exchange in New Earth, a few decades further into the future. Interesting that Warner felt it unnecessary to weave in the men’s next journey step but this certainly didn’t hold back what was a compelling interplay. Daughter Isabelle (O’Neill) is all grown up and now a trainer of AI robot, Esta (Rukavina). A slight homage perhaps to popular TV show Westworld, this really was a beautiful display of physicality (loved the resets) and the emotional struggle of what it means to be human. Rukavina was effortlessly in control, and O’Neill’s reflective decisions were completely believable. Sensitive attention to pace and gesture added real gravitas to the scene making this captivating to watch all the layers unfold.

To tackle the non realistic elements combined with the sci-fi setting needed a strong director, and thankfully this show had it in Julian Meyrick. Familiar to Red Stitch audiences with his previous works; The Realistic Joneses, Lamb and Dead Centre/Sea Wall, Meyrick grabbed this new play with gusto and made the most of the humour  – both verbal and physical, and knew how to shape these alongside the quieter darker moments. Slick scene changes with minimal props and furniture allowed the pace to progress seamlessly. Unfortunately, some dialogue felt repetitive and overlaboured in the writing with the men’s roles seemingly more underdeveloped than the women’s but was not helped by some over pronounced stagecraft. With some slight script finessing, punching in 5-10 minutes less than staged would have elevated its cohesive impact.  Sci fi is so rarely seen on stage, and kudos to the costumier Emily Collet for thoughtful touches to each Act and time period, without resorting to shiny lycra! The coloured tunics with their slight nod to Star Trek, allowed for great twist worn variations, but the shoulder pads on the Act 2 AI were less effective. Lighting design by Lisa Mibus allowed the ominous moods to be conveyed within the simple yet effective set that used video projection for a cool effect – though the time delay was a little distracting.

Overall, this story sprung from a brilliant concept, was enhanced by committed actors and risky staging and all within a supportive environment that ensures Red Stitch as the place to invest in and watch bright new talent on and off stage. Warner is a definite writing talent to watch on the Aussie theatre scene because of her originality and inventiveness.

Images: Jodie Hutchinson

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