The production Whale, currently showing at Northcote Town Hall asks a lot of its audience. It’s participatory theatre, but if that makes you nervous, rest assured that a) the ushers can give you hints on how to avoid mics and stage time, and b) the real asks are not about participating directly in theatre, but are the existential questions of how on earth do we begin saving the world from climate change and what are our responsibilities?
Playwright Fleur Kilpatrick and director Katrina Cornwell, with the aid of their talented cast and crew, have put together an ambitious, if neurotic, call-to-arms regarding climate change and a playful exploration of theatrical form. It’s commendable and timely, and any note of criticism towards the production should be prefaced with the knowledge that this production is bolder in scope than the majority of Melbourne theatre. It’s trying to build empathy, it’s trying to spread awareness, it’s trying to inspire action, and that’s what we need.
The show begins as a forum held in a town hall, guided by our host for the evening, Sonya Suares. She explains not to fret about the serious subject, choosing an island to be sacrificed to appease the rising tide, as in reality it’s just a play, so don’t get too worried. By the end of the production the town hall forum will have merged and become a liminal space, somewhere half hall, half the stomach of a self-aware whale. If this sounds like two productions, it’s because that’s what it is.
The first portion of the production, which lasts the first 55 or so minutes, sets up the participatory theatre experience. It engages the humour and human idiosyncrasies of participatory work, (what will the ‘normal’ audience do, and how can our host play off that?), makes meta-theatrical self-references, (Creative Victoria missed out on not funding this Max Afford award winning play!), lays bare part of its own technical construction, and motions to other theatre jokes. For lack of a better word it’s cute, but vapid, and the audience titters. You might begin to wonder the value of participatory theatre about climate change performed for a potentially insular and left-leaning audience in Northcote, (solidly Labour voting with a Green spell 2017-2018).
Kilpatrick herself may or may not have the same questions of participatory theatre, because as the first portion begins to wind down, she sets provocations against her own set up, and explodes the form and format of the night. She even shows up, by way of text message.
This second portion transforms the setting to the whale’s stomach, and Chanella Macri arrives, as the whale. Macri is electric, with an off-beat delivery and curiosity floating on top of a well of emotion and intelligence. It’s a stunning and confident performance, just when it’s needed.
Unfortunately, Sonya Suares, who plays a version of herself, suffers from the dual nature of the plot. While her performance is dexterous and intelligent in the first portion, it’s the heart and emotional availability Sonya brings to her meltdown and a touching moment with Macri’s whale that really allows her to shine bright finally.
Sarah Walker, who has done the comic AV Design, also performs as a heightened version of herself. It’s a convincing performance, and Walker carries it well, as both a foil for Suares, and a representation of the theatre norms being subverted here.
The production in general is well done. Lisa Mibus’ lighting design is deft enough to meet the changing needs of the show, both playful and not overdone. Emily Collet’s set is simple and effective, with her use of plastic evocative and haunting. Raya Slavin’s sound design makes some great use of oddly other worldly sourced whale noises and suits the production well.
Ultimately, while the first portion motions to subversion, it’s the second portion that digs in and questions and provokes theatrical forms. When performers and theatre makers say they believe in “playwright as God”, they probably don’t have Kilpatrick’s flourishes here in mind. It’s the playwright’s humanity, humour and neurosis on display, as well as Macri’s pitch perfect performance, that work to redeem the show. The next question might be – is the format and time needed to set up the production necessary to get to the juice of the ending? Each audience will likely have their own opinion, just try and save the world while you’re at it.
Images: Theresa Harrison