REVIEWER RATING: ★★★★.5

First Love is the Revolution was written by Australian playwright Rita Kalnejais. The play had its world premiere in the UK in 2015, when Kalnejais was doing a residency with London’s Soho Theatre. Four years later, an Australian production has arrived, courtesy of Griffin Theatre Company and directed by outgoing Artistic Director, Lee Lewis (in 2020, she is replacing Sam Strong as Artistic Director of Queensland Theatre).

Kalnejais’s highly imaginative and idiosyncratic piece is a story of forbidden love, in the vein of Romeo and Juliet. Basti (Bardiya McKinnon) is a 14-year-old boy having a difficult time at home; his mother is mysteriously absent and it’s clear early on that his father, Simon (Matthew Whittet), is struggling with his role as parent. At school, he is somewhat of an outsider.

Basti creates a crude trap, hoping to catch a fox he can kill to make a fur stole for his mother. A young fox, Rdeca (Sarah Meacham), gets caught in the trap. Like Basti, Rdeca is coming of age and her mother (Rebecca Massey) has been pushing her to make her first kill.

Basti doesn’t go through with killing Rdeca. From the time he finds her trapped, the two are somehow able to converse with each other, despite the obvious barrier of species. That ability to understand one another, coupled with their shared experience of grappling with young adulthood and their respective places in the world, sees a strong bond beginning to form between Basti and Rdeca, transcending the relationship of hunter and prey.

Kalnejais has penned a truly original and wonderfully satisfying play offering Sydney audiences a unique experience. It’s off-the-wall and funny in its depiction of interactions between animals and people, but it’s also provocative in demonstrating how the degradation of others becomes an excuse for otherwise repugnant behaviour, including violence. Essentially, the argument is that the more we’re able to understand each other, the more difficult it becomes to bring about harm to the other. It raises interesting questions about our relationship with animals and how, for example, we see them as having interests and rights inferior to our own, despite their obvious sentience.

Clocking in at 100 minutes, First Love is the Revolution is beautifully directed by Lewis, who ensures this staging of Kalnejais’s story retains the right mix of whimsy, wit and poignance. David Bergman contributes one of the most effective, evocative and enjoyable scores of the year, the music cohering seamlessly with the tone of the show each step of the way. Similarly, Ella Butler’s set is in keeping with the overall quirky feel and its impact is enhanced substantially by Trent Suidgeest’s spectacular use of lighting.

It’s also fortunate that Lewis has assembled an incredibly strong ensemble of actors. McKinnon’s Basti is on point; it’s a terrific portrayal of an awkward and struggling youth, navigating testing times. As Rdeca, Meacham continues to prove that she’s a rising star of the Sydney theatre scene. She is excellent, managing to have the physicality of a fox and successful in delivering a character that is sensitive, strong and unwilling to accede to the expectations of her group. There is nothing in Butler’s costuming to overtly indicate Rdeca is a fox, but it’s entirely unnecessary here and allows the audience to focus on the shared traits of the characters, rather than their fundamental biological differences.

Elsewhere, Amy Hack showcases her impressive versatility and skill as Gustina, Rdeca’s older sister, and Gemma, an adult neighbour of Basti and Simon. Whittet does great work as Basti’s blithe but impervious father and demonstrates remarkable comedic talent as a chicken and a mole. And when it comes to the comedy, Guy Simon is an integral player, generating some of the show’s funniest moments as Rovis, an aggressive but clueless guard dog.

Finally, Massey brings presence and authority to her portrayal of Cochineal, the mother of Rdeca and her siblings. She’s a tough but devoted matriarch, tasked with the sole care of the children following their father’s death, and there is real gravitas in the character Massey creates.

A love story between a fox and a teenage boy is an odd and unlikely premise, but Kalnejais has crafted a play that is inventive, intelligent and moving. Lewis has done justice to that text in a production that is beautifully designed and realised and leaves us to contemplate the inescapably animalistic tendencies of human beings and the humanity of animals. Highly recommended.

Photo credit: Brett Boardman

FIRST LOVE IS THE REVOLUTION – SEASON DETAILS

Where: SBW Stables Theatre, 10 Nimrod St, Kings Cross
When: Playing now until 14 December 2019
Tickets: $38 – $62
Bookings by phone on (02) 9361 3817 or online here. 

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