I have always thought of theatre as an extreme sport – it asks you to push yourself to the absolute limit of your creativity, resourcefulness – it asks you to be sleep deprived, and physically and emotionally exhausted because it is limited by time, space and presence. The transience of it raises the stakes – and the lead up takes a million times longer than the event itself… it is perhaps this fact that makes the role of the playwright so essential.

If you don’t get the content right, try as you might, the experience can be devastating – for the actors and the audience. The play is the thing.

But that is just the starting point. The play itself is only one part of the whole venture – the a bullet/cannon ball (the topic/subject) if you will, but you need a sturdy cannon (the venue), a huge amount of gun powder (Publicity), a trigger (social context), a spark (A creative vision), and some brave adventurous backer (A producer with cash + time+ energy) to light that spark. As with so many productions i have seen lately, they have everything BUT the BULLET. And as dazzling as it all can be – visually exciting and sensual – without a bullet, there is a bit of the point of theatre missing.

This is something slightly different to what I have extracted from Director Paul Gilchrist’s program note. Leading with the assumption that topical, political or meaningful theatre can be seen as “spinach theatre – theatre’s that good for you but tastes terrible.” I come from the perspective that spinach is delicious – you just have to know how to serve it. I also think that all theatre says something and means something – even if that meaning or message is flippant, curious, corney, romantic – it’s inescapable because meaning is made by an audience. All theatre is good for you. All art is good for you. What I feel a little disconcerted by is the suggestion that a topical piece of theatre is somehow immediately in need of defense, or that the audience needs reassuring that “it’s ok, this is tough and it’s worthy, but you’ll like it… it’s not as bad as you think…”

The blurb goes like this:
RANGOON, Burma, 2007. Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is under arrest and the democratic movement has suffered years of brutal oppression. But the Saffron Revolution is about to shake the military dictatorship to its very core.
Australian playwright Katie Pollock explores with poetic vision the moral chaos of political engagement in this latest production by critically-acclaimed company subtlenuance.
Piper, an Australian journalist in Burma on a personal quest, senses the scoop of a lifetime. But when confronted by conflicting beliefs and threatened with death, she must ultimately choose between the victims and the spoils of this covert war.
Australian playwright Katie Pollock explores with poetic vision the moral chaos of political engagement.

For more background – check out the interview in the SMH here:

This script has found itself on the desktops of some of Australia’s great dramaturges and playwrights – and has had the support of many developments, readings, companies. I first came in contact with this play in 2009 – and so it has developed quite a lot since that moment when I first encountered Katie Pollock’s writing. I have since then directed a piece of her’s for GriffFRINGE and I hope to work with her again, as a director or dramaturg. She works hard, she’s generous. She can write.

But as I mentioned, that’s only part of the equation.

The set design by Chloe Lawrence- Hartcher and lighting by Liam O’Keefe look great. Large silk banners – patches of light… it’s quite attractive.

But that is only another part of the equation.

I absolutely value and believe in the energy, passion and commitment of subtlenuance to support new Australian writing, as I have said before their efforts are unparalleled and committed. They are brave in backing (often) unknown or yet un-celebrated writers…. they follow their passion. I think they’re an essential part of the landscape – and many Independent companies have much to learn from their practice and passion.

However on this occasion, the directorial work was lacking – an unfamiliarity with the size of the New Theatre stage space meant that actors were traveling large distances to get to their entrance and exit points on the stage… And some of the staging choices left the actors in an undescribed space, place and time which is essential to a story such as this. In addition to this the choice to have little no sound track for a country (and religion) rich in sounds, seems odd. All in all, the most comfortable parts of this production seemed to be the anglo-centric moments – perhaps the more familiar of territory for the production team.

Although some very present and focused and very heartfelt performances from the cast, the over all pace and fluidity of the play was stilted and awkward. More rehearsal or familiarity with directing for a large space (such as the new as opposed to the Tap or the old Fitz – where I know Gilchrist has celebrated many successes), and also practice wrangling a complex, multi-faceted play such as Pollock’s, might also assist in the creative vision of new work.

This is a much needed production in the ongoing problem of theatre in Sydney being overly Anglo. This is not a colour-blind comment. This is a request for colour consciousness. Our theatre should and must reflect a diverse range of cultures and concerns – for we are a nation of many cultures and concerns. We need stories to be diverse and fascinating – we should not ignore stories from different cultures. unfortunately there is a limited pool of actors of non-anglo and non-english speaking backgrounds that are in the position of being actors – because frankly there isn’t a lot of work for them. And it’s hard to forge a career as an actor when there are very little examples of elders similar in voice, body, skin to them. It is for this reason that more work which is not focused on the privileged anglo should be produced and I applaud the New Theatre AND subtlenuance for having the guts to back this play, and this subject.

I must agree that the wonderful thing (from all reports) about Gilchrist’s directorial style is that he gives much space and authority to the writer. He does not try to burden the production with production flourishes – and that is something I admire and am in alignment with. But there is no substitute for ensuring the actors are spontaneous, active, confident, and brave in their choices. The director’s role is really to ensure efficiency and potency in storytelling – spatially, vocally from the actor- otherwise, it could be argued that all of us would be better off having read the play in the comfort of our homes.

This is a valiant attempt at something different and unusual in the current Sydney theatre landscape. It should be rewarded with an audience. It is a shame that had Subtlenuance had more time, more practice, more resources (say the equivalent resources as the main stage companies have) that the production would be able to best represent what I believe to be a timely and passionate play by a playwright with much promise.