Often it's not until you've lost something that you realise how much you once had, yet it is the lucky person who is aware of their good fortune at the precise time that the fates have chosen to smile on them. You see, it suddenly occurs to this critic, thinking back on the experiences over the last year or so at the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir, that there's been some really good work going on in it. And there's a great sense of enthusiasm that one has when travelling to see shows there, an enthusiasm that, perhaps of all the theatres in Sydney, is most keenly felt. Belvoir, under the artistic leadership of Ralph Myers, is a company that is very, very rarely boring, and that, I hope, is a high compliment indeed. Which is all to say, in this very roundabout way, that the latest Downstairs production of Small and Tired is yet another sterling example of very interesting new Australian work.
Pylades (Tom Conroy) and Orestes (Luke Mullins). Photo by Brett Boardman.
Which isn't to say that it's a great play, mind you – one doubts it will become a classic (but then onenever really knows) – but playwright Kit Brookman, perhaps better known to Sydneysiders as an actor (this critic last saw him as Olivia in Bell Shakespeare's Twelfth Night), has crafted an awkward (in a good way) and mildly intense work that explores the oft-plumbed territory of familial tensions and grievances. And while it may not be a great play, I don't think I've come out of a theatre in recent times so eager to see another work by an Australian writer as I did the night I saw Small and Tired.
What particularly struck me – and this is as much to do with actors, no doubt, as it is the script – is the style of the dialogue. It is at times extremely naturalistic, but it also veers into the poetic on occasion, although not entirely successfully. (The problem sometimes is that the mind registers that, "oh, the writer's getting a bit poetic", which takes us out of the moment, but it happens enough times so that one becomes a tad immune to it. If you're going to go poetic in a script, you most likely need to jump in with both feet or not at all, lest the poetic elements jar against the non-poetic ones. Small and Tired is more than halfway integrated, but not entirely.) No doubt the intimate nature of the Downstairs theatre, plus the grassy set not clearly delineated from the audience (the front row could curl their toes in the shrubbery if they wanted to), helps with the sense of a lack of artifice, but the script efficiently bumbles through itself in a most pleasing way. Also admirable is the amount of humour drawn from a script that, for the most part, steers clear of obvious punchlines.
The story is loosely based – or inspired by – the Greek tragedies. Luke Mullins, our guide-of-sorts into the world, plays Orestes in modern day Australia. His father was in the army but has just died, and there is much consternation about certain actions of his that ripple throughout the family to this day. The opening scene shows Orestes and Pylades (Tom Conroy) in a bar flirting with each other, and so, as the relationship progresses, Pylades takes on the function of a narratorial outsider; an excuse to reveal the past to us. He is brought, for example, to Orestes' sister Electra (Susan Prior) and her husband Jim (Paul Gleeson); Orestes has come home from England to take care of the funeral arrangements, and his relationship with his sister is strained from such a long time apart, as well as their previous lives. Their mother, Clytaemnestra (Sandy Gore) stirs the pot somewhat as well with her presence.
There has been a spate of Greek adaptations of late (not that there's ever really a shortage of them), and what we're always told is that the writers and directors find the myths still very relevant to contemporary life and society. And the greatest adaptations to hit our recent stages – indeed, some of the best plays to hit our recent stages – have all proved the truth in this. One thinks of Thyestes, which brought the disgust and shock of that myth brutally home; one thinks of Medea (on at the Downstairs theatre last year), which brought the grievousness and emotional turmoil and horror of that myth to life. Small and Tired does not do this, however, for it sets out on a more mild path. There is a tragedy in the past that is regurgitated with the accompanying bile, but it is not an immediate emotion for the audience; rather there are flickers and sparks of bitter embers, and the scorches still being left to this day. It is hopeful, in a way, yet bilious and self-defeating as well, but always a mixture to be savoured. There is never a dull moment, which is a huge feat in itself, especially for a new work. It is engrossing, mildly thought-provoking, and entertaining to boot. Not necessarily to be remembered forevermore, but certainly not to be missed.