By Darby Turnbull
Wit incorporated is a company that can always be relied on to put on a good show. They’re a company of great integrity and commitment with a strong sense of community. Riley Tap has to be commended for the ingenuity with which he and his team have transformed the Bluestone Church Arts space with an attractive, expansive monochromatic set. Nathan Santamaria’s soundscape has an eerie lullaby underscore inspired by Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. Likewise, Jake Wilkinson’s insightful lighting design serves the characters moods and minds with detailed sensitivity.
With such a well-crafted production and cast it’s difficult when one doesn’t connect with the text within it. Vanessa Bates’ text is ripe with empathetic and dramatic potential. The ways in which IVF and struggles to get pregnant impact a couple’s relationship dynamics and sense of self is important and deeply relevant in today’s society when the expectation that you can craft a successful life with right resources is all but demanded and seen a personal failure if you do not. The text follows two couples Meg (Madeline Magee Carr) and Tim (Riley Nottingham) who are struggling to conceive and their slightly older friends Jen (Lansy Feng) and Bill (Richard Mealey) who have just begun IVF treatments. My (and several other people I spoke to) main struggle was my inability to connect with any of these characters as written or acted. Bates has crafted four archetypes, that to my eye are thinly drawn, and don’t seem to engage with their own archetypes. Likewise, all four are deeply unpleasant ranging from self-absorbed to actively toxic. One of the great joys of engaging with art is the opportunity to engage with people, behaviour and ideas that you may find distasteful and see how it reflects to your own worldview. I don’t believe the text goes far enough to build empathy for these people and their plight as such it feels empty and it’s hard to build momentum with the exposition heavy dialogue meaning the scenes drag with very little sparkle or insight.
Lansy Feng gives my favourite performance as Jen, a tough as nails, brash event organiser who can control everything but her own uterus. Feng finds a very emotionally effective balance between a woman who’s accomplished, witty and unapologetic in her interactions who finds a deep well of vulnerability and doubt within her. Richard Mealey as her sweetly pedantic husband Bill does the most he can with perhaps the most underwritten role, whose sole purpose seems to act as a beta male who gets stepped on by the people around him which doesn’t give him very far to go beyond some well-timed witticisms
Madeline Magee Carr does her best with Meg; the character I struggled the most with. Meg, as written, is suffering the most with her continued lack of success in becoming pregnant to the point where she lashes out and self-destructs. She really plays into her less likeable qualities bringing a whininess, entitlement and lack of self-awareness to the role that is definitely present in the text. On that note, I struggle that I am in fact finding a woman desperate to have a child in relationship crisis whiny and entitled and not invested in her growth and journey or engaging with her flaws. Riley Nottingham matches her well with his own characters selfishness, obliviousness and arrogance; he’s a classic ‘golden boy’ bro who likewise is very thrown off that things aren’t going his way.
There is so much in these character dynamics that I felt was under explored in the text and production. Namely how damaging heteronormativity and affluent privilege can be. There’s a running thread that these two couples only really want children because they’re the only ones in their friendship circle who don’t have them, and it’s expected of a well-off couple who have been together for a number of years. They seem to be trapped in toxic roles and expectations that serve neither their relationships or own self actualisation. Otherwise, I could find very little in the text to indicate why either of these people would want to stay in their relationships, what drew them together or why they want to have children. And if that’s the conflict at the core of the play I don’t think it was executed to its full potential. All four just come across as shallow and underdeveloped and as such not particularly good company for the ninety minutes we spend with them. We don’t even have the fun of chuckling at how comically awful they are.
Bates also throws in a few melodramatic subplots which feel like they’re from an earlier draft given the lack of exploration they receive and how they effect the overall plot.
Emma Drysdale’s direction is crisp and efficient, she displays excellent leadership over the design aesthetic which is universally excellent. Costume designer Gabby Carbon has curated an effective character driven wardrobe with nuanced sartorial details. Her vision serves the actors well and they all make excellent use of the traverse staging. The single moment of whimsy; a sperm ballet choreographed by Sophie Loughran was an amusing highlight which showed off every team members strength in unity. Though I must say, if I never see a sex scene on stage again I’ll be very happy. They’re written into the script and necessary to the plot for obvious reasons so I fully admit it’s a personal preference.
My reservations about the text and character developments were heightened because there was so much in it I found fascinating and wanted to see explored further. For example, the pain and humiliation of IVF and the excessive pressure and stigma placed on women trying to get pregnant and the dismissiveness and lack of care they’re subjected to compared to (cisgender) men.
Those wishing to support local artists and theatre should absolutely make their way down to Bluestone Arts Space to make up their own minds about this piece, I’m sure there are many who may find it relatable and insightful or enjoy the very strong production that every member of Wit incorporated have built.
Every second plays until May 29th.
Image: Jack Dixon-Gunn