Red Stitch continues its brilliant year in theatre with its latest offering, Pomona, by award winning British playwright, Alistair McDowall. A wildly dark ride piercing the scab of our modern lives, Pomona, says director Gary Abrahams,  is a real page turner as a read.

“The plot moves so quickly, and the characters are so intriguing and well drawn, that I was genuinely engrossed by it on my first read,” says Abrahams, elaborating on why this was a play he had to direct. “There’s also something that lurks beneath the surface of it- a sort of mysterious “about-ness” that I could sense but couldn’t immediately articulate. Images and moments from it lingered in my imagination and set me off dreaming about the potentials for staging it. I was also excited by the genre aspects of the script. Horror, sci-fi, fantasy, thriller and mystery are usually reserved for film and television; they’re not often explored in theatre texts. I was excited by the challenge of attempting to realise these elements theatrically. It’s also been a while since I have had the opportunity to work on a contemporary script with this sort of edgy in-your-face tonality and I wanted to test myself to see if I had the instincts to realise it in a way that matched the vision I held in my minds eye while reading it.”

Pomona was written by McDowall when he was 27 and first performed some 5 years ago. It is a harrowing look at our world – a pessimistic, bleak view really – but is layered and deceptively deep. Abrahams admits to discovering so much about it while working with the actors and the creative team.

“It’s revealed itself to be very different from my initial imaginings and dreamings, and far more complex and layered than I had realised,” he says. “It’s such a mysterious puzzle of a play, an impossible riddle that keeps slipping away from any sort of logical answer. The story is told in a non-linear way- sequences and events aren’t revealed chronologically. Yet when you try and piece the chronology together in a logical and linear way you discover that any firm chronological ordering isn’t quite possible. There’s always a piece of the puzzle that refuses to slot into place. Yet somehow there is still a strong dramaturgical logic that holds it together and keeps you invested. For an audience, you’re receiving the information and experiencing it in the order it’s presented to you while continuously trying to piece the puzzle together in your mind. It’s a very active viewing experience!

It’s a very deep play; it explores extremely complex philosophical and metaphysical questions that trigger very core animalistic and spiritual responses within us all. On the surface it’s a thrilling plot peopled with wonderful and complex characters, but underneath it poses very unsettling observations about reality, consciousness, memory and the power of story telling and myth creation.”

While not previously familiar with McDowall’s other works (Brilliant Adventures, X, Talk Show, Captain Amazing) Abrahams admits to now being a fan.

” I have enormous admiration for his creativity, intellect and theatrical instincts,” he says. “His sense of rhythm and tone is fantastic, and as a writer he offers tantalising invitations or provocations for myself and the actors. On the surface, because the writing is so rhythmic and pleasurable to read, it seems like all you have to do is say the lines and honour the rhythms in order for the scene to work. But in rehearsing it you realise that there are actually innumerable voids that you have to fall into in order to discover the true meaning or heart of a scene. It’s actually proven to be an exceptionally difficult script, and I’ve rarely worked so hard with the actors to discover and reveal sub-text. There’s a whole sub-textual script that exists beneath the apparent script, and the only way for myself and the actors to access it is by doing a hell of a lot of character work, backstory, psychological exploration and honing in on given circumstances and objectives. As well as engaging our imaginations! And that’s just one level of the work! After all of that comes the challenge of evoking a sense of atmosphere, mood, tone, etc. It’s a work I feel I could rehearse and explore for months. There hasn’t yet been a sense of having “cracked it”. ”

Indeed, a challenging work on many levels,  the play is described as a horror story and modern thriller- a tough gig for a director to get the mood just right!. Abrahams describes the task as  extremely challenging adding that evoking a sense of horror onstage is very difficult.

“Film and TV is far more suited to horror- with editing, camera work, music, sound all easily manipulated by the creators to help convey that sense of fear and dread,” explains Abrahams. “Theatre is such a different medium; you’re always working in wide frame, the audience always knows it’s in theatre, that everything is pretence, that they can control where their gaze falls. I don’t have the luxury of using jump cuts and distorted camera angles! But the horror of this play is more psychological. It’s more about the evoking the sense of the uncanny. Like in a dream- if you think about your nightmares often it’s really banal or seemingly innocuous things that trigger a feeling of deep fear and dread. I think the nightmarish quality of the play borrows from artists like David Lynch, who is a master of the uncanny. It’s about evoking that sort of deja vu like feeling, where suddenly everything feels out of whack, and you suddenly have a sense that reality isn’t all that concrete and everything is a complex illusion and maybe you really are just plugged into a matrix after all. A big theme of the play is “looping”, a sense that you’ve lived and done all of this before. It’s a very unsettling sense.”

As to how this unsettling dystopian drama, with its intangible quality of unease, will affect an audience, Abrahams isn’t sure, but states it really will depend on an audience members own experience.

“How do you articulate the unease of déjà vu to someone who has never experienced it? If you’re someone who is naturally prone to slipping down metaphysical wormholes about the nature of “reality” then the play will work on you in a particular way. If you’re someone who takes things at face value and are more literal in your thinking then the effect it has upon you will be very different. There is certainly content within the play that isn’t pleasant- it’s a very dark world and deals with very dark subject matter. This isn’t theatre that presents the world as an idealist would like it to be. This is a story that focusses on the darkest and most unpleasant aspects of human experience and behaviour. But it’s also a game, and a knowingly playful invitation to take part in an imaginative game. If you think of really successful computer games you can acknowledge that most of those games are violent and depraved and that people find that depravity really enjoyable and fun. What is it in the human psyche that derives endless pleasure from chaos and destruction?”

Abrahams has been a working director, writer, dramaturge and actor. since graduating from the VCA in 2009. His body of work is  highly lauded, award winning and not only extensive but eclectic. From Laramie: 10 Years On to Bad Jews to Songs for Nobodies and 33 Variations, Abrahams admits to not having a sense of being drawn to any particular style or genre. For Abrahams, the great thing about working in this field, is that you get to dive into all sorts of worlds and realities.

“My own tastes are very, very eclectic,” he says. ” I love the full gamut- as long as there is an intelligence and depth at work. Comedy, drama, horror, sci-fi, reality television, period dramas, historical, documentaries- I love them all. What really draws me in as the intelligence and craft of the creators. And always that sense of something lurking beneath the surface. When I think of the “about-ness” of a work it always has to have layers. There is the literal “about-ness”, i.e what happens, the plot, the action, etc. But there is the other “about-ness”, what it’s really “about”. The metaphorical, allegorical, poetic layer that you can sense but might not be able to articulate. That’s what draws you in and keeps you engaged. And that’s what excites me as a director and makes me want to spend time exploring and discovering a work during the rehearsal process. I don’t see rehearsals as just the process of staging the script. That’s the last phase of the process for me.”

And on the topic of characters, and how they might influence a decision toward a particular work, Abrahams opines that for him, it’s got nothing to do with the character per se. It’s more about the writers intention with the characters. How is the writer exploring their core concerns with these chosen characters?

“Any character can be intrinsically interesting or not depending on the perspective they have been written with, explains Abrahams. “Any person on the street can be extraordinarily fascinating or not depending on the perspective you are looking at them with. Saying that, one of the things I enjoy most about being a director is working closely with actors on realising a character. I never just let the actors do their thing while I focus on the bigger picture. I can’t discover the bigger picture unless I’ve gone on a journey with the actors as they excavate character. Character is always my way into a work. I find it incredibly tricky to design a play, and land on aesthetic choices until I’ve explored the work through character. Where the actors and the character (through text)  meet is where I start to understand what the work will be.”

Abrahams’ relationship with Red Stitch is lengthy and productive – having first worked with the company in 2010, and having since directed several shows with them. Abrahams admits that it’s been a little while since he’s worked there, but that it’s been wonderful returning and seeing how much the company has grown and developed since he was last here.

“I am such a fan and supporter of the company, and think their place with the theatrical landscape in Melbourne is vital, he says of the company that was established in 2002. “They are our strongest link to the contemporary theatre work being created throughout the world and they get to be far more bold and adventurous in their programming than other MainStage companies. They have also become a leading voice in the development of new Australian work, and have a far better track record of actually producing and staging new works than other MainStage companies.”

Pomona is dark, threatening, exhilarating and creepy story telling. It will unsettle, challenge and bite so if you like your theatre bloody then this one is for you!

Trigger Warnings: graphic content, violence, adult themes, haze, smoke, loud noises, strobe effects, graphic content relating to sexual and physical abuse, exploration of metaphysical and philosophical themes, may open portals to other dimensions, evocations of a sense of delusion and alternate realities, actually much less frightening and horrific then you have been led to believe, don’t believe the hype, it’s probably quite funny.

July 14 – August 11