A summer night. Friends in t-shirts and hoodies roam the empty streets of Bermagui – drinking, climbing things – cars, fences, railings, garden beds. Loud music. A car with a dirty windscreen. The windows down. Hot chips. A bonfire at the beach. Rugged bushland surrounds the beach. A campsite. A girl you might kiss. A friend you might owe money to, you might fight with…

Nikola (Max Rapley) and Chris (Charles Purcell) are long time friends, who haven’t seen each other in a while. After school they head down the coast for a party on the beach – there’s beer, a bonfire and a babe called Sophia (Sheena Reyes). Nikola is Sophia’s boyfriend and he loves her – possessively so, and Chris is hoping to maybe find a girl at the party, but really might be more concerned about his car getting broken into. Nikola is full of bravado and adventure and confidence – Chris on the other hand is not so sure and Sophia is a little bit stuck on how to untangle herself from where she is, and get to where she needs to go.

This is the first play I have seen by Sime Knezevic – but not the first time i have encountered his writing. teh bonfire was developed through Knezevic’s residency at Shopfront last year – and although i was on the panel that selected him, and gave him feedback on his first presentation of the piece, I missed out on seeing his final showcase in November – something which I have always regretted. So to properly declare my hand, Sime worked on Stories from the 428 Week 1 last year, and i had read Gameboy (previously submitted for Brand Spanking New 2008 and produced as a part of The ColourBlind short Play festival 2010). So I know his writing a little. It seems to me that Knezevic’s work deals primarilly with the struggle for power and status – with characters who wrestle and flip their intentions on the spin of a dime – it’s shakey ground. No sooner does the characters feel steady, and an erratic or unfair or oblivious comment sends them reeling – they lose their footing they are rendered mute or frustrated or enraged… It’s a marvellous tension which builds. I think Knezevic is onto something.

Grimley’s production is a gritty (pardon the pun) punchy (and again) multi-media exploration of the dynamic of impulsive teenage decisions. The film work is suitably home-made, the sound track is adrenilin raising and she has clearly tapped into the youth culture aspect of the script – and it rings true. It looks great – a sand-covered floor, a scaf trolley and large projections complimenting the lighting design (Victor Areces).

However, there are some limitations to the production – the clarity of the vocal work from all actors meant that some intent was overly neutralized – the drive – the force of the language was not quite put to the fore. Dramaturgicaly there is work to do – Sophia is surprisingly underwritten then overwritten – and lacks any true depth to indicate why a longtime friendship between Chris and Nikola would be jeopardized by her, and why Chris wouldn’t just stand up and walk away when she rejects him. Similarly Nikola is largely unlikeable – realistic yes – but unlikeable – which renders his character as one dimensional. And Chris is our mumbling protagonist – who has a speech which from my perspective is really is the whole point of the play – a portrait of a young man stuck and trying to work out the power of action and inaction and in search of clarity and certainty. In the end the problem within the play is not answered by Chris – and I am not sure if he is left any different at the end of the play as he is in the beginning – nor do I think there is a transformative journey for any of the characters, and therefore we, as audience are left without a transformative experience as such the story stops a little short of it’s full potential. this is a portrait – a beautiful portrait, and I would love to see the next draft. (I think I heard that this is Draft 3 – and there is a Draft 4 floating about ). There is no doubt Knezevic can write – and has a real and authentic knack fro dialogue – and a quirky sense of humour and is very capable of asking questions – but I think he’s got more in him.

Spatially, there are some difficulties with the staging – where is Nikola when he is off stage? Where are Chris and Sophia in relation to the bonfire party? Who can see them – can they see them? Grimley is already an accomplished rising independent theatre-making star, and has an incredible work ethic, eye for visual detail and responds very viscerally and personally to story. As good directors should. It is interesting that her collaborative and warm approach to making and devising and developing work is very noble and admirable, but in some aspects a firmer hand with dramaturgy and with vocal work may have been needed. However, I remain a firm and avid supporter of her – she’s unstoppable.

We have a strong tradition of coming of age stories in Australian literature, film and in playwriting – it is the side effect of a new country feeling the pain an alienation of contributing to an artistic or cultural tradition which has been invented elsewhere and refined over hundreds of centuries. Nationally, we are the teenager feeling frustrated and confused – whoa re we, what should we do, why can’t we do what everyone else is doing? And perhaps for the writer/director/actor perhaps there is a feeling of coming of age as an artist – when will I stop emerging, when will I know I’ve made it? When will I have arrived?

For all of us though, our teenage years are remembered as the years we had the luxury of thinking about/worrying about silly stuff, the wrong stuff, the boring stuff – all that energy and potential thwarted by an intense feeling of paralysis – from peers? From parents? From society at large? And we remember the transition from school to the rest of our lives – those summer months – as a time of personal purgatory in which we treaded water until a decision put us into our future.

The Bonfire is a passionately presented piece of work which certainly reminds us how universal introspection is and just how far we’ve come.