***** STARS

By Darby Turnbull

From where I’m sitting, Rachel Perks’ new play Hydra made for a perfectly invigorating post-lockdown theatrical experience. Their compelling, intelligent, and deeply felt text invites us to sit with the chilling possibilities of how we live and connect with each other, where we’re going and what we can hope for. Personally, I sat rapt for the entire taut run time only taking a breather from the action to marvel at the brilliance and ingenuity of the craft from each member of the team led by director Bridget Balodis. What a blessed thrill to be so immersed in a piece of performance.

Hydra takes place in a world where water has become so limited that society is being sustained by individuals who elect to euthanised so their body water can be distributed back into the community. With a major lack of jobs, opportunity and hope it’s an attractive option for those wanting to give themselves purpose and meaning, to be a ‘hero’. Perks’ incisively takes advantage of this premise to explore the effects on gender roles and dynamics in ways that feel typical and subversive. Many volunteers, we are told; are white, cisgender young men represented at this time by Bowen, 25, unemployed, dejected. Facilitating the procedure is Anita, an experienced ‘Giving consultant’ there to ‘ease the process’.

Perks’ gift is that they never lose sight of the very real emotional stakes of their characters living within this concept; their ideals and personalities reveal themselves organically or by design so the world that they’ve created feels so lived in that their audience can readily empathise with it. So much dystopian fiction can get so overwhelmed by the magnitude of their creation that it creates a disconnect.

Bridget Balodis’ psychologically precise production is a riveting evocation of the text and a testament to the kind of theatrical magic that can occur when the right creatives find each other and nurture each other’s potential. There doesn’t seem to be an element that’s been wasted or undermined. James Lew’s set nails the discomforting simplicity of clinical spaces, especially ones that don’t have the funding to be maintained. Daniela Esposito once again displays why she’s one of the most skilled and exciting sound designers working today, her compositions have a way of getting under the skin in ways that can make you forget its there before grounding you with another emotionally resonant flourish. Amelia Lever Davidson’s lighting design is a seamless guide between mood and tone that serve the actors performances beautifully.

Sapidah Kian is laser sharp as Anita. She’s someone who excels at her job through an intense understanding of human behaviour and how to manoeuvre it; as is revealed early in the play her ‘clients’ very rarely back out of the procedure. The ways that she changes her behaviour based on the person or mood is unsettling but demands your admiration. She can be imperious and icy with a supervisor before becoming cloyingly reassuring and patronising with Bowen. He’s completely out of his depth so it’s never going to be a battle of wits but rather watching just how she’ll win given how adept she is at pushing certain buttons; will she play with vulnerability? Be aggressive? Nurturing? Her genius is playing the expectations of gender against him which means she might know him better than he knows himself. But there are moments of hope where she allows herself to imagine a liberated future alongside the compromises she must make in the present. Kian revels in this character, and if I had the resources I’d go to every performance just to study what she’s doing given how many facets of this character she’s playing at once.

Casey Filips as Bowen is a surely ball of toxic rage and self-loathing, his inertia only broken by homophobic and misogynistic outbursts they he himself barely understands, climaxing in a VR simulation where he’s confronted with the ugliness of his violent impulses. Filips brings a restless physicality to the role evoking a very familiar type of young man; there’s a poignancy in looking into his eyes and seeing a character not used to self-reflection, empathy or critical thinking start to figure out the reality of things then emotionally flee from them.

Double Water Sign has assembled a brilliant mix of creatives who are prime examples of the high standard of our local arts community. I sincerely hope that Perks’ text gets a well deserved place within the theatrical canon, not only does it provide two cracking parts for actors to sink their teeth into but students can study a thematically resonant and expertly crafted piece of drama. Combined with magnificent design and two stupendous performance I have no hesitation in recommending audiences make their way to Northcote Town Hall, if they’re lucky enough to get a ticket.

Images: Darren Gill