By Darby Turnbull
After almost a year away from live performance what a privilege it is to be back! Kerosene written and directed by Benjamin Nichols and starring Izabella Yena is the kind of raw, urgent, character driven theatre that I’ve missed most.
Kerosene is a love story about friendship; the devotion we feel to our chosen ones; the rituals we share, shared language, the inextricable bonds that make their pain ours. This plays features one half of that pair; Millie, a young working class woman from Lilydale without many connections and a fragile sense of self beyond her absolute commitment to her best friend Annie. Like so many cases Millie loses Annie as Annie loses herself to an enigmatic and violent man. So, when Annie shows up at Millie’s house violently beaten, Millie will enact a brutal act of vigilante justice.
Benjamin Nichols has an incomparable collaborator in Izabella Yena; together they have created a tense, fully formed, fascinatingly contradictory character. Izabella Yena is revelatory in her seamless ability to weave between bravado and vulnerability; she is a master story- teller, navigating the past tense narrative in ways that feel consistently fresh and present. Millie is a woman who’s been hardened from a very young age and it shows in the rough cadences of her voice. It’s so refreshing to hear local vernacular and colloquialisms written in ways that feel natural without patronization.
Nichols’ text excels in his exploration into the minute mundanity of Millie’s everyday life. Thankfully, he keeps the writing as grounded as Millie herself without falling into the trauma porn trap. She’s a woman with fierce pride and drive but undermined by her intense loneliness and struggle to connect. Her main relationship beyond Annie is the loving but emotionally removed grandfather who raised her; he acts as a fascinating foil to her tough, rough exterior; his fey gentility has been so hard won that the two seem at a constant emotional crossroads. It’s a beautiful depiction of a very loving relationship that is missing that one essential connective factor that helps a person grow.
The challenge with any laser focused single person play is how much introspection and self- awareness to allow the character and just how much is allowed to be revealed through their thought process. In this case Millie is moving as rapidly as she can, she is almost pure ego and impulse; it doesn’t give her time to reflect on the ramifications of her actions either for herself or the audience; one senses it would be entirely too painful. Given the nature of the play our impressions of Annie are filtered entirely through Millie; especially the violence inflicted against her. As an audience we are not given the opportunity to see how Millie’s actions and attitude effect Annie, namely because Millie never questions them. Annie’s autonomy is compromised by her fiercest ally; her wishes and boundaries never really considered. These blind spots are incredibly relatable especially when faced with the pain of someone we love and so often the casualty is their experiences being co-opted by our own sense of righteousness and justice. It’s a nuance I would have appreciated more exploration into.
The commitment to the realism is undercut in the final moments with some narrative choices that require some serious suspension of disbelief. As a storyteller, Millie is already very selective about what parts she allows us to see and here and that is maintained right to the final moments. The ending that Nichol has chosen after the dénouement is interesting in that it almost entirely omits the systems and forces that exist outside of Millie, Annie and the world they live in. The consequences seem to be more existential than realistic making for a conclusion that seemed, from my point of view, too safe and tidy in a story that is neither
Theatreworks has risen to the social distancing requirements with aplomb. High level glass boxes have been installed featuring comfortable chairs and tables with plants and tea lights; the only thing missing, the gentleman next to me quipped, were telephones so we could call our fellow audience members. It was fascinating viewing this particular performance under these circumstances as it’s clear that it’s maximum impact would involve as little disconnect from the audience as possible; to be able to breathe the same air as the performer, become complicit in her actions and worldview, to not have the kind of privilege of detachment in which these stories are often told in the ‘real world’. It makes Yena feel like the centre of an exhibition, her Millie trapped and under observation; as the play says people generally don’t know how to respond to women who fight, especially when they fight back. She stalks the space with vulnerable bravado both charming and challenging us. It’s a testament to her complete embodiment of the character that her body is telling a story no matter what direction she is facing.
Nichols decision to have it played in the round with no set or props serves the play perfectly, leaving room for Yena to completely dominate the space and build the entire world through her words and expressions. Harrie Hogan’s lighting design creates some stunning atmospheric moments; particularly in moments that highlight Millie’s isolation. Similarly, Connor Ross’ sound design evokes a thrillingly, tense momentum that works in fluid harmony with Yena’s pace throughout.
Kerosene is vital, nourishing theatre featuring an astounding performance from Izabella Yena. To see it is to witness an artist display a mastery of her craft in ways that will move and excite any audience member fortunate enough to see it. I sincerely hope that her performance is recognised by awards committees, faithful audience members and fellow creatives.
Kerosene will play at theatreworks until the 31st of January.
Izabella Yena will star in Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes at MTC in March.