Fresh out of Drama school, fresh in Sydney. Bright eyed and bushy tailed- four directors (Fiona Hallenan-Barker, Justine Campbell, Marcel Dorney and Travis Green) embark on a Directing Collaborative, pool resources and vision for the challenge of producing Howard Barker’s The Possibilities at the freshly revived Sidetrack Theatre.

Ten vignettes- or scenes on the theme of war, terror, tyranny, politics in all its manifestations are played by an ensemble of predominantly Sydney-based actors (Jacinta Acevski, Jonathan Brand, Ray Chong Nee, Errol Henderson, Sophie Kelly, Brynn Loosemore, Gabrielle Swathorne, Jane E Seymour). The Possibilities (written in 1986) is a study of human behaviour in extreme circumstances that begs the question “what would you do? How would you react? Under what pressure would you defy morality? How steadfast are you in who you are and what you know of yourself?” They are interesting questions and it is easy to see why so many are fascinated by and enjoy being challenged by these questions.

Charmingly, the foyer of Sidetrack is decked out as a house of yesteryear by the designers billed in the press release as “two of Melbourne’s youngest and most brilliant” designers, Chloe Greaves and David Samuel. Lace curtains, vinyl records, tea sets and a comfy armchair and a plate of iced vo-vos add to the charm. (Of course I’m not sure post-opening if the lamingtons will still be on display…)

Upon entering the space, an opaque plastic curtain hangs a few metres forward of the back wall. Meat hooks on chains gleam as they hang from the ceiling. It’s a beautiful set. Not what I expected from my experience of the foyer. There is a slickness about the design- the costumes are beautifully made and the set is other worldly- nearly futuristic and unsettling- it feels far from the “home” of the foyer. And that idea is really fascinating… a heightened sense of home and comfort contrasted with a sci-fi/post apocalyptic world. There is no doubt about it- the production values are high- this is a slickly produced piece of theatre.

At moments throughout the performance, a bright light shines into the audience’s eyes- and the actors stop and look up… for a while I didn’t get it- as they didn’t always seem to lead anywhere. And then I realised. It was a directorial choice to acknowledge the air-traffic over the theatre by amplifying and drawing attention to it. For me, this was really distracting and somewhat baffling. Those that know Marrickville, who know Sidetrack, understand and general ignore the air traffic… this generally slowed down the pace of the scenes and interrupted my train of thought- I soon became fatigued and irritated by light being shone into my eyes… the production got sacrificed for a gag.

The scenarios are numerous, the premise of each very engaging, though, unfortunately this production of The Possibilities is missing something or maybe I missed something. I felt largely like I was watching a drama school showcase- where the choice of play was about showing skills- or showcasing – not necessarily connecting. I search the media release and the programme. The directors notes are written using the metaphor of cooking- which baffles me. What has cooking got to do with morality? I was hoping for some clue into how the directors worked together, why they selected the play for us… I looked for the reason why these directors had banded together- what is it about each others work that inspires them.

For those who saw Theatre Forward’s (NIDA’s Directing Graduates who graduated in 2008) similar project last year “The Sneeze” – you may find it an interesting comparison and contrast to this, the VCA graduates collective for The Possibilities. The Sneeze showed each director’s style and sensibility – there was a sense of “equal but different” and each director chose a piece from Chekov and presented it with their spin/style. By contrast, I’m not sure who directed what- who’s style I was looking at- who’s vision this is. Theatre Forward have a sense of “Theatre of Catatstrphy” about it too the “agree to disagree- a a right not to like each other’s work”- but not in an alienating way. I’m not really sure what to make of this collective – if this is an ongoing collective or collaboration, what the aims or manifesto is… who is it for and wht it aims to achieve. Is this an experiment? Or is this the directors bringing the mountain to the prophet (IE VCA Melbourne talent to the Sydney Industry).

Strangely I also felt the style of presentation was very alienating- I feel a strange lacking of compassion or empathy for anyone- any of the characters- I was supremely distracted by the form and the style and so much so I lost the humanity altogether. I found it difficult to follow the stories as the characters seemed humourless- again the media release warns me of Barker’s caustic wit. I found the writing to be glib and at times dull. Was this Barker’s point? Or was this the doing of the directors? I’m not sure.

I guess I didn’t get it. (was that the aim?) I didn’t connect to the work. (Was I meant to?) I guess I am philosophically naieve or ill-suited to this type of theatre. It’s probably my failure to understand. After all I am no scholar on Barker and my thesis was not on The Catastrohic theatre. I’m pretty simple, I guess, I come from a belief that theatre is about offering a thought, message, idea, experience to an audience. I believe that making theatre is an act of generosity. I don’t agree with the aloof and nihilistic viewpoint that “there is no message.” I believe that there is always a message- even if that message is one of nihilism. For me to be moved, transformed, enlightened, or even engaged I look for theatre that has a heart… that is more than an intellectual exercise… and I guess because of that, I generally felt shut out from this production. There were two glimpses where I felt I was let into the world of Barker and the directors collective- where I felt the tragedy- or I feared for the future- and they were scenes connected with Ray Chong Nee- the book seller and as God- which I found really engaging and compelling… other than that, I felt like there was alot of stuff going on- and I didn’t really understand. So I must honestly declare, I didn’t get it.