Red Stitch are to be commended for never shying away from the hard plays – both in terms of content and performance. It is always a risk to both company and audience when a challenging play is performed and especially one that leaves much open to interpretation by the performing troupe. Such is the case with their latest offering Sunshine by Aussie playwright Tom Holloway, where previous works such as Red Sky Morning and Beyond the Neck have also been viewed by Red Stitch audiences. Indeed, those who saw the Green Room award winning Red Sky Morning will not be surprised by Holloway’s return to the choral monologue format in his new play. This idea seems logical for a playwright who is as comfortable writing operas as he is straight plays or film scripts. His work shows a keen emphasis on the selection and rhythm of language, in what should be said and how it should be voiced. But he is also open to ideas for synchronisation, expression and alternate presentation. This play is given its best chance in the capable hands of Green Room award winning director Kirsten Von Bibra (Grounded) and an experienced quartet of actors including Red Stitch Artistic Director Ella Caldwell, alongside guest actors Philip Hayden, Caroline Lee and George Lingard.
Holloway has created four seemingly disparate stories of strangers in or near a shopping complex, which weave and interlock with each other at various points and in different ways, and then converge together in a dramatic and surprising climax. Each tale demands to be not only understood on its own, but also to slowly understand its seeming interconnectedness with the other three anecdotes. Lingard as Man 1 opens the scenario and continues strongly in both amusing and assured fashion in his quest for connection with his overweight doppelganger twin. His lithe movements and dulcet tones made it easy to follow for the most part. Hayden as Man 2 fully embraced his tale of meeting his partner which doesn’t go quite to plan yet at times he wasn’t able to fully demand our focus to his thread – maybe something lacking in the too mellow tonal range at times. Caldwell as Woman 1 playfully entered the ensemble but her story was not one I felt as connected to though it is hard to pinpoint anything specific except perhaps the illogical staging that seemed incongruous to her range of emotions as she shared her tale. Lee as Woman 2 comes late into the story but her hypnotic voice, carefully deft movement, understated pull of focus and clever switch from pathos to canny humour as we realise she has been riding around with her husband’s ashes in an urn really was the highlight. An interesting aspect that connects these four stories is song and the repetitive obsession and invasion into the thought processes of these strangers (again no surprise from the opera aficionado Holloway). Sung out loud in small snippets throughout their stories the contrast between pop trio Hanson’s MMMBop with the classic You Are My Sunshine worked for the most part. The denouement after the dramatic climax where all four stories collide returned to a more realistic conversational style and oddly seemed out of place with how the rest of the piece had proceeded, and even more bizarrely just simply ended without a real punchy moment which was kind of expected given the lead up.
This play demands a lot from its audience, you cannot miss a minute, or a beat as it were or you will lose all comprehension. Even more testing is that it demands complete attentiveness from its viewers for 100 minutes with no break. Perhaps four stories were too much for this reviewer and her companion as our afterward discussion revealed we had only been able to keep up solidly with three each (a different set though mind you). This is not so much a critique of individual performances because they are all to be commended for their impeccable timing with each other as they vocalised a difficult script. And whilst the performance was fully absorbing, there was a sense of exhaustion due to the relentlessly taxing style that did naturally affect audience comprehension and enjoyment. Whether this was in the writing or the jarring blocking, stylisation, pausing or synchronicity as a group – no one key aspect is to be put under the spotlight for this difficulty. However, what really made watching this vocally challenging piece even more complicated to watch was the set and lighting design by Matthew Adey– the textured rocky floor surface looked awkward for the actors at best, especially as they simultaneously attempted to negotiate the twisting cords of the lighting rods to various spots for no seeming reason yet not miss a beat within their own verbal ensemble. It did seem at times that this extra layer of difficulty was not only a struggle for the audience but also the actors themselves – in short, highly distracting and unnecessary. However, the rain effect and buried furniture were clever inclusions that added a level of interest to the at times monotonous circling movement that seemed to lack meaning or focus to the story being shared at that key juncture. Special shout out though to the inclusion of the real dog running through at the beginning and whose important presence in the story is really only made clear near the end. A nice touch.
If theatre is meant to not just entertain but challenge and create conversation then Red Stitch has achieved its aim. It does demonstrate how we are all strangers with our own preoccupations but only several degrees separate us from each other – especially in a time of accidental clash of crisis. This style of show is fully immersive, but will not be for everyone. Certainly it showcases how writers, performers and creators should and can push boundaries in all realms of artistic endeavour but that doesn’t mean it will always work or be appreciated or understood by all in attendance.