By Darby Turnbull
It’s about survival not morals
Land written by Thalia Dudek and directed by Ruby Rees is a deeply sensuous experience. Abbie-Lea Hough’s set; made up of wood, bark and leaves penetrate the nostrils. Daniela Esposito’s sound scape accompanied by musicians, Andy Song (Drums) and Emmanuel Cundasamy (guitar) accompanies the action constantly like a fey lullaby so the rare moments of silence register like a bolt. Then there is Dudek’s text that explores the surviving casualties of global catastrophe; what happens when the mirage of stability is stripped away and we are left to our basest impulses; to defend, protect, procreate, shelter and feed ourselves and above all survive. We need not look further than this particularly hellish chapter in this country’s narrative to see this piece speculative fiction as a deeply urgent exploration of a grim inevitability.
Eight children and young adults have set up camp in the woods; they are a makeshift community banded together out of pure circumstance. They have fled a warzone; internment camps, quarantines and casual executions are what await citizens who aren’t the privileged enough cross the border. Dudek and Rees are particularly skilled at evoking the anxiety and boredom that pervades when you can nothing to do but wait for disaster to strike again; when all you can do is sit with the trauma until you’re forced to act. Dudek has written a play strong in ideas and emotion but, and I can’t claim any insight into her creative process, feels rushed and haphazardly put together. The text itself exists in a kind of no man’s land; sometimes too pensive and occasionally over plotted. I yearned for more texture and nuanced characterisation that would come from another draft and workshop. Her octet of characters; all played by highly accomplished performers; vary in terms of development. Their dialogue is sharp and emotionally resonant but the development of few outweigh the rest. The fraught connections don’t feel ingrained enough to create a sense of urgency that the premise requires.
Dudek herself plays Aya, the self-appointed leader of the pack. Everything in her cadence makes you believe that she is a natural leader; she is tough, forceful and immovable. The extent of her trauma is only hinted at but Dudek plays her as so grounded that it’s evident it has moulded her with painful precision. She is a natural orbit for the other seven to revolve around, but she casts such a long shadow that the other characters sometimes feel less integrated than they need to be. One of the key subplots is a budding romance between Vicktor, the newest member of their group, a clueless boy who unlike the others comes from wealth and Yasmine; a woman secretly dying of TB. Nic-Davey Greene plays up the character’s self-deprecating poshness with effortless charm and humour. Laura Mccluskey splendidly plays the duality of a young woman torn apart by her inability to grieve her estranged family and her dogged determination to take a little bit of happiness for herself. The arc starts strong but all but fizzles out as the plot becomes more frantic. Fran Sweeney Nash as the grimly pragmatic Reina has a quiet and well developed chemistry with all her cast mates that hint at the varying connections with all of them but Reina has so little to do in the plot other than tell some hard truths that on paper she feels more like a sketch. Nash’s performance is compelling enough that it inspires speculation on how much more she could do if her character was integrated into the plot with more nuance.
One of the more prominent storylines is a volatile family drama featuring siblings Sam, Amira and Lilliana. Sam is the most outspoken opponent to Aya’s leadership and one of the more volatile members of the group, however his worldview isn’t developed enough to make him a viable adversary. Ben Walter must play him at a high level of emotion, but he seldom has anywhere to take it beyond bluster. The main conflict to emerge is how to manage his 14 year old, adopted sister Lilliana who has disassociated so far into herself that she has no sense of the reality of her situation. Lara Robinson gives a fully committed, almost wordless performance that is heart rendering in its physical intensity. A key denouncement between her and Sam doesn’t hit with the shock that it should. I won’t reveal the specifics, but from my perspective it felt forced rather than artful. Walter and Robinson commit to the moment and its aftermath beautifully, but it is one of the text’s more subtly egregious missteps. Less successful is how elder sister Amira is made to fit; she is given too much too late for the character to register with necessary force. Zoe Hawkins elevates the character by prowling the stage with an animalistic force that chillingly evokes Amira’s battle with her own humanity.
Karl Richmond shows up late in the piece as Finn, a hitherto absent member of the group believed to be lost forever. He is such a conspicuous plot device that he never comes into his own as a character; there are expositions of motivations and connections with the other characters, but they don’t register with much nuance. Richmond is particularly strong at playing a hyper manic, anarchistic charm but he never comes across as a tangible threat to status quo despite it being his purpose. Finn’s relationship with Aya especially beggar’s belief; there is little visible chemistry between the competent, world weary survivor and the petulant child whose tantrums are more irritating than compelling.
Ruby Rees, assisted by Kaite Head, once again displays a remarkable tenacity for building a palpable tension on her stage through careful and considered blocking. There is a sublime coup de theatre late in the piece that takes us inside the head of Lillianna that achieves a glorious harmony with every member of the creative team. Mungo Trumble, whose lighting design had previously utilised dimness and shadows (to great effect) suddenly bathes the stage in resplendent gold. Daniela Esposito really lets loose with her vocals, giving voice to the internal anguish of the acting ensemble who connect with each other in a pure and magical way.
Thalia Dudek and Three fates theatre company have a strong and tangible vision for this text. Its current iteration is painted with very bold, broad strokes and I’ve been so picky because there is so much possibility for finesse and more detailed exploration into the characters, themes and ideas. Notably, I think the play would be served better with more diverse representation amongst the characters and their place within the world of the play. If this is the only outing Land is to receive, it is a demonstration of some highly talented young professionals and very much worth a trip to St Martins Youth arts centre.
Land plays until February 8th.
Text: 3.5 Performances: 4 Direction: 4 Sound and Lighting: 4: Set and Costumes: 4