What a rare and wonderful thing it is. A new play! A new full length play produced! Out there. In the world. On it’s legs! At last, at last K.I.J.E is here!
After four years in the development, Joanna Erskine’s K.I.J.E has found itself bold and unabashed at The Old Fitzroy Hotel.

The script itself has landed on the desks of every dramaturg and literary manager in town – and many directors (independent and mainstage) and the list of thankyous from Erskine proves that it takes a village to raise a child. It has received support from PlayWriting Australia, from World Interplay – it’s a well traveled play. I am probably the only person in Sydney who hasn’t/hadn’t ever read a draft, and that is more than fine with me. Since 2008 I have been talking to and with Erskine about her writing – she was a part of Brand Spanking New 2008, 2010 and Stories from the 428 (week 2) and I have a deep and grand affection for her, her ideas, her writing and I believe her to be a writer to watch… she has a big future ahead of her.

This play was to premiere in Melbourne in 2009 (I think) but was post-poned as Giles’ mainstage career has taken off (she’s the current STC Richard Wherett Fellow) Erksine, dedicated to her working partnership with Giles was happy to wait, until the moons aligned. It takes a huge amount of patience to be a playwright. And that shows grand strength and fortitude (can you see why I like Erskine?)

Inspired by the story behind Prokofiev’s Kije Suite her father told her, K.I.J.E is an exploration of the imagination – an exploration which seeks to show the value of story in the lives of four soldiers.

Konrad (Fassal Bazzi), Irving (TJ Power), Jono (Gabriel Fancourt) and Ed (Wade Briggs) are out of bounds, in enemy territory. They are Elvis fans – they know all his facts and figures by heart. They kill time vandalising and quizzing each other about Elvis and even paint a logo of his head on a derelict building. When their Platoon leader Messner (Christopher Tompkinson) catches them in the act, they are caught in a lie about who KIJE is.

The strengths of the production are in the faith and power director Sarah Giles has given the writing and the acting. For many directors and designers, the temptation to design over the top of a new play is huge. Thankfully Giles, and her team of designers Charlotte Lane (Set/Costume), Verity Hampson (Light) and Cailtin Porter (Sound), keep out of the way of the writing and the acting sufficiently enough that we are concentrating on the story – which is about imagination as thus, we as intelligent audience don’t need much to go a long way. It’s an energetic tousle – full of quips and quick changes in intensity. Surprisingly, there are quite tender and poetic moments especially from Irving – highlighting the power of words in a hostile environment. All actors are superb -Tompkinson’s rich and enveloping voice is impressive and powerful, and the ensemble work by Bazzi, Power, Fancourt and Briggs is textured, forceful and complimentary… they swing between killing machines then force us to surrender with their sweet singing.

Interestingly this production of this play itself was not finalised until 24 hours out of opening night, as Giles, Erskine and the actors tried alternative endings over the preview performances. I believe the ending I saw tonight is the one she is settled on. And I wouldn’t be surprised if there was tweaking in the next production of K.I.J.E, whenever that would be. But remarkable and magnificent is the opportunity for a living writer to develop their play at a theatre, with an audience. And this is absolute, living proof that you can have a million qualified, experienced, award winning enthusiastic midwifes working on the script – but it’s all academic until it’s up on its feet in front of an audience. The baby book is very different to having a baby.

Erskine and Giles in their insatiable need not to settle have sought to nut this one out. Lesser artists would have had a “oh, well, near enough is good enough” approach.

Dramaturgical spoiler alert!
However, I still have some unresolved questions about the play – I wonder how long they’ve been there. I wonder what happens to “the girl.” And perhaps looking at the why of the need of the imagination. I’m curious how much does Messner know/not know? I wonder also about the idea of coherent identity as a core unit – and how that effects individuals perceptions. I wonder about how stress and trauma skews imagination… i wonder if Irving really did write on the wall and if he really forgot.

As you can see there is lots to think about and engage with. Lots to mull over and chat about in the pub afterwards.

But the most wonderful, wonderful thing is that a new work is out there – a new work with a fresh, funny, intense, poetic, robust literary (and visual) language which signals the start of a grand adventure for Joanna Erskine.

I think you should go, it’s a handsome, intense show, and you’re sure to leave the theatre armed with conversation.