Red Stitch’s success with the quirky yet affecting The Realistic Joneses in 2017, obviously encouraged the company to present the Australian premiere of Will Eno’s latest offering, Wakey Wakey. Written after the death of two close theatre friends, Signature’s artistic director James Houghton and Edward Albee, this 70 minute piece is a philosophical reflection of life, death and time. It begins strikingly with the spotlighted body of Guy played brilliantly by Justin Hosking (who also starred in Red Stitch’s previous Eno work) before a cacophony of chimes and alarms signals a wake-up call to his unexpected plan, causing him to exclaim “I thought I had more time”. The rest of the play sees Hosking deliver his reflective musings from a wheelchair as our guide for how to live a meaningful life, especially when nearing the end.
Eno’s script evokes an almost TED talk style of delivery for the first two thirds, compelling us to not be passive participants but actively think about our own lives. The concept is not wholly original, but worthy. Unfortunately, the script’s exploration of this preoccupation doesn’t always succeed, sometimes undercooking the opportunity for something more profound and impactful and replacing it with clichés or saccharine didactic sermons. This is not to take anything away from the commanding talent of Hosking and highly credentialed director David Myles whose physical and emotional realisations of the work really got the most out of the material. Hosking’s piercing gaze, jovial manner and perfectly timed pauses evoked empathy and sincerity as we follow his ponderings and physical decline. His clever use of light and shade created a sense of genuine trust and authentic connection. Large life questions were presented directly, or through cue cards or multimedia visuals that showed variety and humour but at times fell short in their exploration or sense of purpose. Simple delights like animal noises that blend into the operatic tones of Pavarotti created humourous intersections amongst the deeper revelations where we were asked to think about our heroes and give gratitude for the people who have meant something to us, taught us something, “nudged” us on a new path of purpose.
Interestingly, it is only later in the final third that we learn about Guy’s impact on others with the unexpected arrival of his carer, Lisa, compassionately played by Nicole Nabout who makes her Red Stitch debut with this role. We glean here that Guy was beloved by the parents and students of his swim school teaching. But little else of his private life is revealed to us though perhaps Eno’s message is that an ordinary life can reveal just as important life lessons. As Guy’s condition deteriorates, Nabout’s gentle yet assured manner created a soothing sense that he would not be alone in his final hours. Her simple reminder that sometimes adapting to new plans is the key and was beautifully conveyed. Hosking’s physicalisation of his demise was really compelling and, slowly revealed the nature of his death from an unnamed degenerative disease that once again echoes Eno’s preoccupation from The Realistic Joneses. The assured hand of director Myles really came to the fore during these duo exchanges, and especially in the final moments of the actors’ presence on stage, that was both heartbreaking and exquisitely handled.
The minimalist concerns of this piece were graciously acknowledged with James Lew’s stripped back set. Simple unmarked packing boxes and muted tones of the walls were complemented with the sheer draping providing that ethereal space as well as seamlessly allowing the visual media to be displayed in different sizes. Justin Gardam created some wonderful soundscapes throughout, though the volume of the final tribute was perhaps overbearingly loud. The real standout in production values was the lighting design of Lucas Silva-Myles. It displayed a real understanding of the shifting moods in the writing and the director’s intention – ranging from subtle intensity shifts to stark colour spotlighted moments that perfectly enhanced the spoken words and actions. Positive shout out to Gabriel Bethune’s precision in operating the constant and unexpected AV and sound that created perfect moments of humour and connection with Guy and the audience. And although the final video tribute seemed a tad too long, the childlike wonder of the bubbles descending from the roof served as a great reminder of the importance of not losing our playful spirit or taking things for granted.
Red Stitch’s commitment to contemporary writers is admirable, as well as their dedication to chronicle ordinary lives impacted by extraordinary events. Contemplative and intriguing, Wakey Wakey suits a reflective audience who wishes to ponder the large questions of our world and within ourselves. Unfortunately, the success of the more traditional and less preachy narrative of The Realistic Joneses was not fully realised in the writing of this new work, though that is to take nothing away from the company’s meaningful presentation that reminds us to always have and savour joy in our life before “time becomes the enemy” and snatches it away.