Melbourne is dense with its arts culture. There is not a facet of the arts that you cannot find here, no performance unattainable. It is the perfect platform for works to be presented and drafted and appreciated, with cabarets up at the Butterfly Club and Chapel off Chapel, comedies at the Lithuanian Club and Club Voltaire, and poetry readings all around the city and surrounding suburbs. For writers who are often too self-critical to release material to the public, this makes it the ideal breeding ground for creatives to source performers and vice versa, allowing for their early works to be workshopped with receptive audiences until it finally bursts from its creative cocoon.
Established in 1982, Melbourne Writers’ Theatre has been “providing playwrights at all stages of their careers with a supportive and dynamic environment in which to develop their ideas, scripts and craft.” Hosting everything from script workshops to monologue soirees, rehearsed readings to short play events, MWT’s Six Degrees in Melbourne is an exhibition of six local writers’ short plays that relate all to the same theme: lost and found at Melbourne’s iconic Flinders Lane. With six very different, separate and unique small plays, each with only two characters, MWT allows for each individual writer to not only showcase their work but their own writing styles and creative flairs, all the while tying it back to a relatable theme and place. By the same respect, one can’t expect a night of refined theatre here, but rather, a writer’s experiment to test their pieces and test the waters; with the promise of a 7:30 start being confirmed, an introduction to the company ethos and mission pushed the shows start back half an hour before audience members were escorted into the theatre and seated.
Directed and designed by Mazz Ryan and Adèle Shelley, Six Degrees in Melbourne had consistent transitions between each piece using a black out, a projection, and a little theme song. Each show follows its own conventions in relation to its script, with the direction of each play containing nuances different from the next. This included changes of poise and posture in characters (especially those double-cast), moments of slapstick and physical comedy, song, breaking the fourth wall, soliloquay, and a variety of others. However, while there was a lot of dense material to work with that carried the performers along easily, thus taking the audience on the journey with them, certain scripts had confusing, ambiguous or sometimes self-contradicting lines of dialogue that detracted from the conviction of the piece, removing the performers from their world and us from the performance. The performers were each commendable in their own way and handle of their characters, and without giving anything away, did justice to the writers and their developing pieces.
The landscape is crafted with a minimalist approach: a street sign post to our left, a large neon sign hanging from the ceiling on the right, a curtain backdrop where projections of Flinders Street’s iconic visage are showed. The soundscape is of a metropolitan lifestyle, gushing with footfalls and traffic and a buzzing blur of voices discussing their days. We find ourselves in inner-city Melbourne, whether in the hustle and bustle of the daily cafe cluster and its swamp of brunchers and coffee enthusiasts or in the evening where the diners disappear and the doors lock down as the moon hangs high; with each piece having its own small collection of props and pieces – boxes, chairs, tables, cloths, glassware, a three-course meal – each piece transports us to a different sub-location effectively. Helping with transitions were lighting changes between general washes, profiles and fresnels, spotlighting moments where characters turned into their inner monologues and flashbacks of memory through to creating changes in mood and time. However, due to the nature of the production having multiple shows each with their own plots, the cues were often early, delayed or missed entirely, with moments of flickering and missed marks.
Katie Lee’s ‘We Need to Talk’ had actors Sarah Hamilton and Rhys Hamlyn argue in broad daylight on Flinders Lane about the fragility of their relationship. Joe Austin-Crowe’s ‘Kept Bear’ showcased Carolyn Dawes and Kyle Roberts as a homeless woman and a policeman rekindling an old relationship as they go on a search for a toy amongst the rubbish. Maree Collie’s ‘Imposture’ stole the show with Robyn Lester and Yvonne Matthew becoming a middle-aged duo on the run in a high-end hotel, panicking over the details of their little heist with witty one-liners. Maz Ryan’s ‘Take 2’ takes us all home to the pain of a broken family with actors Carolyn Dawes and Stephanie King tackling the wall between them. Bruce Shearer’s ‘Do the Deal’ starred Tim Clarke and Rhys Hamlyn in an abstract netherworld as they discussed selling the other’s youth or protecting it in the ultimate deal. Adèle Shelley’s ‘Love is a Dish’ ended the night like a cherry on top, milking its pantomime nature with large gestures and sweeping vocal movements in a boisterous performance of sauces, spices and secrets.
With Six Degrees in Melbourne being a non-theatre-made-theatre work, it has to be appreciated outside of a full-scale big-budget production and given kudos for its one-of-a-kind approach to the theatre scene. Giving writers the chance to shine through the voices of our performers and our performers the chance to shine through the words of the writers is something so precious in the maintenance of our Melbourne culture. I would love to see MWT be promoted and imbursed further to help them generate much more quality content for the whole of Melbourne to see. This is a platform like no other – Melbourne Writers’ Theatre is definitely one to watch in the near future.
Images: John A. Edwards