Flight Paths was written by Julian Larnach, a member of the Sydney Theatre Company’s Emerging Writers Group. The world premiere production of Larnach’s play has just kicked off the National Theatre of Parramatta’s (NTofP) third annual season.
Directed by Anthea Williams (a recent Sydney Theatre Award-winner for her direction of Belvoir’s Hir), Flight Paths is a coming-of-age story that forefronts the idealism of young people and how their expectations for their own lives, and the roads that they will take, are significantly blurred when venturing out into the real world and having to come to terms with the realities that line their paths.
Larnach’s text tells the stories of two young women in different corners of the globe. Emily (Airlie Dodds) is a young Australian woman who has just arrived in Kibera in Kenya, the largest urban slum in Africa. Back at home, she works for an NGO but has decided to use a break from her work to volunteer for one of the programs run by the organisation – a building project said to fulfil a crucial need for Kibera’s local population.
When she arrives in Kibera, Emily is met by Charlie (Aileen Huynh), a young Chinese woman who’s already been volunteering on the program for some time. She’s also soon introduced to Adhama (Richie Morris), a young Kenyan man tasked with instructing and supervising the volunteers’ project work. It’s not long before Emily begins to question some of the activities going on around her and, ultimately, she gains insight into the substance of her work and attitudes of the local community towards foreigners flying in then flying out, hoping to ‘help make a difference’.
Over 10,000 kilometres away, Luisa (Ebony Vagulans) is also embarking on a new chapter of her life. She’s gained admission to Oxford University and, on her arrival at the residential college, meets her orientation week buddy, Anika (Monica Kumar). Anika is the latest in a long line of family members, dating back generations, to have walked the halls of the world’s most prestigious university. There’s no better person to show Luisa the ropes and to give her a sense of what she can expect from life at Oxford – and the opportunities that will arise as a result. What Luisa will find is an institution steeped in tradition and, despite outward appearances, clinging to conservative politics.
Over the course of 90 minutes, the piece affords us the opportunity to watch as Emily and Luisa are educated in the workings of the world. And not only are the women on parallel journeys, but we come to learn that a connection exists between the two.
Flight Paths is a compelling piece that speaks to a wide-ranging demographic: an audience of those who’ve had illusions associated with youthful idealism shattered, and those who are yet to reach that point. As director, Williams ensures our focus never waivers from the characters and the text – text that rings remarkably true to life. Her decision to have events unfold on a traverse stage helps to assist in enveloping audience members in the stories as much as is possible, and thoughtful choices as to the staging of each scene means no corner of the space is forgotten.
Six actors are tasked with playing Flight Paths’ seven characters, and all deliver strong performances. Dodds is convincingly genial, wide-eyed and well-intentioned as Emily, whose prurience escalates as the narrative progresses, alongside her disenchantment with the world. Emily remains likeable until the end, owing to her genuine and persisting desire to make a difference.
Vagulans’ portrayal of Luisa evokes a similar innocence, as she leaves her former life in Australia that was characterised by beginnings uncommon to the Australian experience. Her journey is a similar confrontation with the real world, including a strictured social hierarchy. Like Dodds, Vagulans believably hones her perspective on reality before our eyes, engages us and makes us care.
Emerging actor Kumar is excellent as the razor sharp Anika, essentially Luisa’s first educator at Oxford. It’s through Anika that Luisa sees how staunchly guarded custom and tradition will impede her path through the university, unless she consciously refuses to allow that to happen. Huynh delights as the quick and somewhat rollicking volunteer Charlie, who’s more clued in to the goings on at the project site than Emily initially realises. And Brandon McClelland lends presence (and an impressive cut-glass accent) to Tom and Max, two male students with whom Luisa becomes acquainted at Oxford, each ultimately a catalyst for her decision to rail against university politics.
In his theatrical debut, Morris is wonderful in the role of Adhama. At the outset, the character appears innately affable, and conveys the kind of appreciation western visitors to Africa can tend to expect from their volunteer turn. But beneath the surface, Adhama seethes about the facts of his life and the patronising views of those he supervises. His is the most tragic story in Flight Paths because unlike each other individual, this character is without any means of affecting meaningful change to his own existence. Morris’ portrayal brings us a man palpably constrained – and it’s heart-rending.
Jeremy Allen’s set is deceptively clever, the main component of which is a floor that incorporates geometric patterns discerned from aerial images of both Oxford and Kibera. Coupled with the traverse, it plays an integral role in facilitating the fluidity that’s integral to a script that sees a constant switch between stories and locations. Verity Hampson’s lighting design incorporates a striking shadow effect, implying planes and birds flying overhead, while Michael Toisuta’s sound design meaningfully contributes to evocation of mood and atmosphere.
The play poses some interesting questions, particularly the value of international aid through volunteer programs and whether they are just another form of imperialism. Flight Paths is a cautionary tale to those entering the ‘real world’ that life is often disappointing and often far more complicated than most will expect. Under Williams’ direction, Larnach’s text has been realised in a thoroughly enjoyable and terrifically executed production. If this serves as any indication of what the nascent company has in store for 2018, it’s safe to say that this year will be NTofP’s most exciting to date.
FLIGHT PATHS – SEASON DETAILS
Dates and times:
Tuesday 20 March – 7.30pm
Wednesday 21 March – 2.15pm
Thursday 22 March – 6.30pm
Friday 23 March – 7:30pm
Saturday 24 March – 2.15pm and 7.30pm
Venue: Riverside Theatres – Corner of Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
Tickets: Adult $49, Concession $44
Available from the Box Office (02) 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au
Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60