New Working Group describe themselves not as a theatre company but as a network of independent theatre artists, combining their talents and resources to create new, cutting-edge theatre, embracing the risks – artistic and financial – in a post-Brandis arts industry. A cursory glance at the group reveals a wide array of prolific (and award-winning) designers, writers, directors and producers, who band together in difficult configurations to produce new work.
Triumph, written by Louis van de Geer and directed by Mark Pritchard, is the first official offering from NWG, playing at fortyfive downstairs until February 28th. I will resist the all-too-easy word play that the title offers, but Triumph is a perfectly balanced, beguiling piece of theatre that demands both empathy and condemnation of the characters onstage.
Van de Geer’s script is masterfully constructed. In three parts it tells three separate stories of tragedy that overshadows truth, a 9/11 survivor and victim spokesperson caught in a lie, a sick child and her mother with no diagnosis, and two men digging in a forest stumbled upon by a young girl.
The script is gentle in its pacing and presentation of these stories, with terrorism, illness and despair contained within quiet scenes in community halls, hospital corridors and exquisitely lit forests. But it is also indifferently blunt in its revelations: it plants the seeds of doubt and uncertainty early in each story and reveals the truth abruptly and without any concern for further questions or loose ends. Not only does it shine a harsh, unyielding light on the new celebrity of victimhood (which, as a side note, is perhaps an interesting revival of martyrdom and the celebrity of saints in the twenty-first century) but it also forces the audience to acknowledge the way that the general public facilitates this phenomenon by placing each victim on a pedestal and our morbid fascination with the ones who fall.
Despite the drama inherent in each tragedy, the play never strays into any sort of heightened pitch, but focuses on the raw, unguarded moments in the calm after, and between, each storm. The dialogue is controlled and concise without any verbose emotional outpouring. To the credit of the writer, director and performers, the emotional impact of each tragedy, truth and lie is contained in the tone of each line, the silence that inhabits the stage alongside the actors, and in a particularly stunning moment, in images played on two large flatscreens mounted above the playing space.
Pritchard’s direction wonderfully compliments the tone and pace of the script, engaging those quiet moments that punctuate and define both tragedy and deception. The opening moments are the perfect example as we watch a support group leader set up his space, flicking on fluorescent lights, the sound of the jug boiling as he arranges chairs, joined gradually by his group. This moment is interrupted by an accident involving one of the group members, and the group leader’s comforting questions and first aid treatment echo in the open space of fortyfive downstairs as the other group members arrive and watch, sipping their tea. We haven’t yet been introduced to the protagonist of this story, but this scene has already illustrated the isolation, empathy, doubt and voyeurism that will play out in more detail over the next seventy-five minutes.
Together with what is clearly a crack team of designers, Pritchard has captured the layered texture of van de Greer’s text. Recorded phone messages and televised speeches play over the top of vividly contrasting action on stage. While multi-media can be difficult to blend with theatre, the two flascreens definitely add to the sense of a mediated world with highly constructed stories of devastation and heroism. There was only one slight fault as it seemed that videos would reset if the scene ran slightly long, which distracted a little from the main action.
Romaine Harper’s set design is simply excellent, surprising in its engagement with the layers of stories and supremely effective in the simple details that actualize each place and people that inhabit them. The biscuit table in the opening story was a great source of the rich, dark humour that ran throughout the entire play. Particularly beautiful was the forest where the final story takes place, made eerie and ethereal by Amelia Lever-Davison’s lighting design which was brilliant throughout, though perhaps a little slow in execution during the fight in the forest. The sound design, by Chris Wenn, wove in and out of the story, heightening some moments and playing into the important subtlety of others to great effect. The stage management team should be congratulated for handling so many different and equally significant elements so seamlessly.
The performances were enthralling; sharp and often surprising. Each actor took on multiple roles in the three stories, and although there were some moments of stiffness, overall each character had depth and seemed in control of the intoned meaning and nuances of each line and silent moment. I was particularly moved by Syd Brisbane’s performance as one of the men in the forest, manic, desperate and endearing. Fourteen-year old Anouk Gleeson-Mead gives a deeply affecting performance as a sick teenager, understated and subtle, leaving questions lingering long after the show is over.
Triumph is only on for ten days at fortyfive downstairs, I would suggest booking tickets soon, as a show with this level of craftsmanship in every element of its production is sure to sell quickly. Hopefully, this is a sign of things to come from NWG and in Melbourne’s independent theatre more broadly.