Red Stitch Actors’ Theatre will present the world premiere of Prayer Machine, an original play by Melbourne playwright Eric Gardiner (Bounty), next month.  The play marries hypnotic black comedy with a tender exploration of ageing and missed connection.

Gardiner explains he wanted to write a play about the New York City Armoured Combat League, who are immortalised in the short documentary film Harlem Knight Fight; a place where high-powered professionals get into suits of armour and fight each other with real weapons. “To me there was something immediately compelling about the collision between contemporary dialogue and medieval costumes,” he says. But the real genesis for the play was when he started interviewing people from this corporate world – investment bankers, consultants – and got to understand the men underneath the armour.

In a place where the twin addictions of nostalgia and technology collide, how can you love somebody who isn’t really there? “The play is grounded in modern ideas around evolution, progress, and disconnection, but these ideas all form the background to the human story,” Gardiner says. “For someone like me it’s tempting to go down the Wikipedia wormhole – to write a story that’s a vehicle for all your oh-so-very interesting research – but if you want to write drama, you have to focus on the people.”

 In terms of atmosphere, Edward Hopper’s paintings were a crucial inspiration for Gardiner and (by a complete coincidence) for the production’s designer Bethany J. Fellows. “A picture like Western Motel captures a perfect union of loneliness and desire, and that’s what I set out to achieve,” Gardiner explains. “There are layers of tension, ambiguity, and even menace, pricked by moments of dark humour, but hope is the constant engine at the play’s core.”

Gardiner acknowledges that the play has undergone a radical transformation since he started in early 2017, when he was 25. The suits of armour are gone. Originally, the characters were his own age but they shifted into middle age halfway through. Many of the settings around the action have changed as well, with a greater emphasis on in-between locations like food courts and AirBnBs, and it’s these simple yet drastic shifts that have had the greatest impact on the script.

A duologue about a pair of high-school lovers who reunite in the twilight of middle age, Gardiner says he loves both characters completely, and  can’t favour one above the other. “It’s a joy to watch Joe Petruzzi and Patrick Williams in rehearsals – they’re such experienced and generous actors who are willing to embody these characters, flaws and all,” he says.

“In a time when attention is a priceless commodity, to have an actor take the time to learn a script you’ve written – to take those words into their body, to repeat lines in the shower, to mutter incantations alone on the tram – is an incredible privilege. Years of living inside this script didn’t prepare me for the first moment the actors got up from the table and onto the rehearsal floor, to a place where one simple line of stage directions can instantly become a charged exchange of power and status.”

Responding to a question about the benefits (or not) of writing a two-hander over a larger cast piece, Gardiner responds pragmatically, saying that it’s much easier in Australia to get a play with fewer characters on the stage; that’s the easy answer. “The limitation is a challenge and an opportunity, because the impulse with dialogue in a two-hander is to slip into Person A, then B, then A, then B, but real human speech never plays out this way. People are always changing their tactics, interrupting each other, or– “

 As a playwright, Gardiner likes to make work that can take full advantage of the unique combination of real bodies in a shared space with an audience. He’s most interested in stories about alienation and connection, and trying to capture modern expressions of those ideas in ways that are broadly accessible, not esoteric. “I’m also bloody-minded about representing Australian language and expressions,” he says. “I think we risk slipping into the undifferentiated, globalised sludge of American English otherwise.”

 The work was developed as part of Red Stitch’s INK Writers Program with the process beginning after Gardiner approached the Red Stitch team with several scenes and an outline in mid-2017. Gardiner explains that the company were willing to trust in the essential love story at the heart of the script and chose the work for the INK program at that point. “Once the director Krystalla Pearce joined the project, we all worked tirelessly to hone in further on the relationship between these characters, and to jettison the elements of the script that were holding us back,” he says.

 Will we ever get back to old-fashioned human connection in the physical world, or is the comfort of connecting in the digital world too seductive? And are we doomed to miss out on the connections we were meant to make?

 Gardiner invites audiences to come for the finger-on-the-pulse pop culture references – whether Age of Empires or Little Athletics – but stay for the tender exploration of aging and missed connections.

 August 4 – 29

Main article image: Robert Blackburn