The Docklands has always felt like an afterthought to me of strangely post-apocalyptic proportions, making me hesitant to venture out that way.
Last Friday night I made an exception- putting my parochial north-sider attitude aside. I arrived at a venue I had never graced before, Library at the dock. Upon inspection, I would implore those who haven’t visited this strangely cinematic location to investigate. Having said that, it is not so ideal for theatre, particularly when the evening announcements about borrowing go over the PA & the space resembles more of an auditorium than anything else. With this said it is a spectacular and commanding space, made largely of glass-complimenting those beautiful Melbourne views of the overpriced, underused observation wheel.
I must say that it was intrigue more than anything that compelled me to see Who Saved JFK? My reasons for this were twofold; I have a penchant for US Cold War politics and I had never heard the story of JFK being rescued by two Solomon Islanders during WW11, deeming this a part of history I needed to be on top of.
Unfortunately for the actors, the audience was considerably intimate and sadly, I believe this initially put them off. By contrast, I happen to enjoy a small audience because in my opinion, it tests the strength of the material. On the performances, they weren’t strong and relied on histrionic interpretations of comedy. The actors were essentially caricatures and this was a fault of the writing in the sense that there was really no character development and at times the character’s intentions/motivations were muddled and inconsistent. An example of this was the presenter character (played by Amanda Trapnell) who started off the play as a superficial, vapid and disinterested daytime television host and then became the primary person championing the telling of the untold story of who saved JFK, to the Australian public. This struck me as inconsistent and underdeveloped.
Additionally, the actors were blocked ineffectively and at times this resulted in awkward moments on stage particularly during songs where the cast proceeded to dance. This was not only out of character in large part, but poorly blocked and choreographed. Having said this, the singing (performed by Ruth Rogers-Wright) was heavenly. I also enjoyed the choice of music which evoked a bygone era reminiscent of the Forrest Gump soundtrack. Again though, the use of song was not placed particularly well and often served as providing music for pictures being displayed on a projector. While I like the use of different media in a show, here it struck me as a device that was not always connected with the narrative in front of me, so I struggled with its relevance. I would imagine that if the visual nature of this production was reimagined and incorporated levels (blocking wise) and media that correlated in a conceptual way rather than a literal one, it would have been considerably more effective.
What this show needed was a bigger vision for the production as something that could be of sensory value. I also thought that a large problem was the blocking of the actors. I often wondered why characters came from certain spots and not others and there never seemed to be a whole lot of motivation for characters to walk on or off stage- all of this affected the believability of the characters. The show also chose to incorporate coconuts as props throughout which I understand had relevance to the story but wasn’t applied in a way that made any sense to the characters, it was just excessive and would have worked better had it been a more subtle inclusion.
At the outset, it was clear that this show was geared for high school audiences (they had just finished a run of performances to school groups) and I found it a little too school-friendly for my liking. What I mean by this is that there was no nuance/complexity to the characters and there was no development to them either. This was a shame actually because there is no doubt that the story is compelling and indeed a story that has not been told, particularly to mainstream Australian audiences. I will say that I acknowledge that my criticisms really are being applied to this piece as if it were a play and I’m not entirely sure that that is what the creatives wanted. It may have been intended to be more of a presentation. Still, I think a lot more could have been done with it in a performance sense, not to mention utilising production and costume design to lift the platform of this piece and make it era-appropriate.
One of my other primary criticisms was that it was strangely an all-female cast. This eluded me because the story was about JFK and two Solomon Islander men that saved him. The show would have worked for me far more on a dramatic level had it had male actors as well to portray the story that the premise centred around. With this said, despite the compelling nature of the subject matter, this one wasn’t really a play, more a performance piece of sorts. What is a shame is that it would make a stimulating production arguably given the following inclusions; solid character development; an appropriate space to perform the piece in; considered lighting; costume and set design and a re-focus on more relevant characters to the central story.
Another highlight, (in addition to the soulful voice of Ruth Rogers-Write), was that before the show I was lucky enough to have a brief chat to Co-Writer Erica Myers-Davis who is also the author of Under One Flag. She informed me that the performance was a second or third iteration and was an extension of the history explored in the book. It also was being performed at this time because of Reconciliation Week. With this said, I would love to see this piece performed to its full potential and I believe strongly in the importance of the message it is trying to tell.