When I see a play, I like to see it without expectations. I avoid reading in-depth reviews and often I don’t read more than a basic synopsis, preferring to allow the story to play out and orientate myself along the way. Before heading along to Bridget Mackey’s Kindness – running until August 9 as part of the FLIGHT Festival of New Writing, double billed with Fleur Kilpatrick’s Yours the Face – I did allow myself a peek at a synopsis. I was intrigued by the ambiguity and simplicity: office workers befriend an elderly woman. And when I left the theatre, I was impressed by its ambiguity and simplicity.
Kindness is very much what it says it is: it is the story of three office workers, clearly run-down by their work, but who spend a great deal of their time talking about the supply of blueberry muffins, homemade jewelry, and, of course, breaking people’s bones with hammers than they do about reports. It is mundane in the extreme, with dreams of doing of something else, anything else, punctuated with stressful deadlines. Enter Evelyn who seems to be offering everything that they need without asking anything in return. But there is a lot brewing beneath the surface of Mackey’s sharp script, and this well-paced, delightful yet dark play never quite boils over, leaving the audience with a taste for the tragic undertones of the modern working world and hungry for more.
Mackey’s script is composed of brilliant verbal tennis matches, which often splinter off in bizarre directions, sparked by seemingly off-hand comments that are often absurd yet lined with insight. It’s as if each character has an unrelenting inner monologue and we only hear every third line or so. It’s so perfectly human. The piece has a wonderful staccato form that doesn’t allow you to get comfortable or fall into any sort of rhythm. You have to race to keep up with the characters, who take great leaps in their conversations and never look back to see if the audience, or even the person they are talking to, have followed. There is a great sense of fun throughout, though often not always shared by the characters. And yet it wasn’t all audience-wide belly laughs (though there were some), but ripples of giggling and snorting as individual audience members had unique moments of connection with a character or an idea, moments of recognition. I think that says a lot about a show: Kindness manages to simultaneously unite the auditorium and provide a unique experience to each audience member. And through all the lightness the shadows of apathy and isolation are so very clear and devastating.
The performances were all exceptionally strong, with each match up that appeared on stage having unique dimensions. From the quivering, quirky conversations between Tom Heath’s Stephen and Rachel Perk’s Trish that tread the thin line between flirtation and absurdity, to the strange nostalgia that they all seem to lavish upon Maggie Brown’s Evelyn, who is brilliantly played to be simultaneously the most positive yet cynical person on stage. And of course, Emily Tompkins is absolutely perfect as the over-worked, under-appreciated borderline alcoholic supervisor who is appears to be more concerned with blueberry muffins than old women but who sometimes let herself slip into moments of extreme cruelty and kindness.
The set, designed by Yvette Turnbull, is very fitting, capturing the leering architecture of modern officer buildings with perfect lines, shining linoleum and sleek furniture. It is well complemented by Sarah Walker’s lighting design, which reflects the hyper-reality of this world and the bleary, sterile lighting of everyday offices. The sound design, from Andrew Dalziell, adds another rich element to the overall design, with layers of office noises and synth almost suffocating. I think there were a few slow cues and moments when the sound didn’t match the lighting, but overall the execution was smooth and really immersed the audience in the absurd yet horribly familiar world.
My favourite element of the set was the small pot plant, although I think people now refer to them as succulents, in a stylish glass bowl. I didn’t even notice it until Trish glances towards it while babbling about the world’s largest cave. It was a beautiful, affecting moment: two people in a glass foyer, staring at a plant in a glass casing, discussing an enormous ecosystem contained beneath rocky ceiling. And then it’s gone, as the conversation takes a sharp turn towards what it would be like to be covered in slime.
This moment illustrates the wonderful subtlety and dynamism of Kate Shearman and Alice Darling’s direction, which dealt with the sharp, choppy sequences of Mackey’s dialogue extremely well. However, while the action was vigorous in the first half of the shows, and matched the hyper-reality of Mackey’s script, in later scenes, the character’s presence in their world seemed to slip back into reality, while their dialogue still hung in that exciting, ambiguous space. Some of the crossovers were a little clunky and at times I felt overly aware of the width of the couches that actors needed to step over to hit their marks.
But these are small critiques of a chow which had my housemate and I chatting excitedly all the way home, comparing notes initially about what we like and what made us laugh, but ultimately about what it was that we had actually just seen. It was fascinating to discover that we had seen the same story, but coloured it with very different details. Kindness is generous, giving the audience enough room to breathe and think and experience the show in their own way.