Mirror’s Edge is a play by Kim Ho, currently in season at the University of Melbourne’s Union Theatre, centred around the geographical anomaly and social media phenomenon known as Lake Tyrrell in the Mallee town of Sea Lake. I heard about this lake a couple of years ago, Kim mentioning offhand to me that he had heard about some tiny rural Victorian town that had, due to a few viral Instagram posts, undergone an enormous influx of Chinese tourists rushing to see the famed mirror-lake, where at sunset and sunrise the sky and water look one and the same. He decided to investigate, an interest of his as an Asian-Australian playwright being the unpredictable convergence of cultures. Mirror’s Edge is the result of this research, which has taken Kim on a deep and fascinating journey.
Blending historical knowledges with a cosmic imaginary, the work looks back to the indigenous history of the land, and in particular, the astronomical science of the Boorong tribe that occupied the area before slowly dying out in the wake of violent European invasion. The play also retells the story of the educated English landholder William Stanbridge (Martin Hoggart), who in the 19th century documented his encounters with the Boorong people, recording and quietly publishing information about their astronomical knowledge as it tied to their understanding of place, nature, myth and the universe. In the shadow of this story is a romance between his servant and a Chinese gold panner disguised as a man. We also see the rediscovery of Stanbridge’s work by Jasmin (Lucy Holz), an indigenous archeoastronomist studying at Melbourne Uni in 1966, who publishes a crucial paper on this knowledge calling for reconsideration of the importance of these details. All of these stories coexist and intertwine with the contemporary story of Kai (Rebecca Poynton), a young Asian-Australian student who moves to Sea Lake to get away from unnamed urban troubles. Kai befriends the pub owner Leanne (Rachel Shrives), and the unlikely pair set upon devising solutions to the slow death of Sea Lake and ways to better capitalise on the so-called ‘Asian invasion’ of tourists.
Kai looks at first like the protagonist, but Ho is much more interested in the lake itself, conceiving of it as a mystical, spiritual space in which people can literally traverse time and encounter figures from the past or future. In this vision, time is imagined not as a linear progression but as something more fluid or multi-dimensional. Time and place do not exist independently of each other in Mirror’s Edge – rather, spiritually significant places like Lake Tyrrell breathe and resonate with history. Sometimes you access this resonant history through research, other times you can just feel it in your body that this is an important and transformative place. These real encounters with non-linear time are dramatised in the play through the imaginary meetings between characters from different times. In one scene, Castor (Eden Gonfond), a young Aboriginal Land Council ranger steps onto the lake to meet a youthful version of his late hero, Jasmin. The lake transforms them both.
The show placed the audience on the stage of the proscenium Union Theatre, looking out onto the seating bank through a scrim with projection on it. The creative use of space gave the intimacy of a black box theatre with the benefit of a spacious background scene for tableaux, which worked well in some beautiful ensemble sequences with the inventive and clear direction of Petra Kalive. Video design by Zoe Scoglio was also impressive, allowing the space to drift naturally between reality and dream. Sound design by Liam Bellman-Sharpe was fantastic, expanding the world of the piece with subtlety and care. Lucy Holz, Rachel Shrives and Antonia Yip Siew Pin stood out as charismatic performers with a clear sense of their character.
Sometimes I felt like the work could really do well to settle for less in its search for cosmic meaning, to simply sit in the beautiful complexity that exists in life and allow that to be meaningful without needing to put its meaning into words. My head was doing a lot of work in the show to keep up, but it was well worth the effort. At several points in the show I felt shivers run down my spine, and had some of the more emotional moments been allowed to linger, I probably would have cried. This is my main concern about the show – perhaps an overzealous fear of losing our attention made scenes and transitions feel a little rushed. I wished I had more time to take in all the details of the many interwoven narratives. But at other times I felt the characters were not fleshed out enough, their arcs cut short without establishing enough of the details about Kai, Aoife (Eleanor Young) or Lao Ghit (Antonia Yip Siew Pin) to make their character growth make sense. William Stanbridge was established clearly as a villain, but this made his interest and dedication to the recording of Boorong knowledge seem bizarre. These concerns didn’t mar the experience for me, partly because the show had so much heart and so much love for knowledge, culture and history. Mirror’s Edge’s key characters mirror the author in his practice of diligent research, engaged discussion and spiritual reverence for the stories that define our cultures.