There are moments in our lives that are only ours. Pure moments, hidden from the ones we love, or love us. There are moments, thoughts that are not ever externalized. They sit replaying in us – gently, invisibly guiding our decisions and our patterns – of love, of hate, of self-sabotage, of victory, of sheer delight in living.

Sometimes we go to the theatre to re-discover those hidden moments – the ones that are our own. We witness or hear something that triggers something in us and we are relieved or relaxed or reassured.

Sometimes theatre is about entertainment – spectacle and distraction. Sometimes its about the awe of surprise or uncovering curiosity. Sometimes it’s an epic artistic rethinking of style or form.

Sometimes theatre contains that which is to teach or inform us of a wider context – a political point of view, an historical event or fact, a new perspective on our current society.

For me, the most potent theatre occurs when all aspects are in alignment.

Babyteeth is Artistic Associate Eamon Flack’s first directorial foray into the world of new Australian plays. Previously he had worked in the capacity of dramaturg for the Belvoir’s new works – and his credits include The Business and Neighbourhood Watch. New play dramaturgy is a very special art – and there is much I have to say on the topic. Primarily, that unfortunately the case (more often than not) is that the dramaturg can squash the innovation and creative possibility in a new play – by placing a structural template over the play crushing the playwright’s instinct and unique voice. It happens all the time.

Babyteeth is the first play I have experienced by Rita Kalnejais – known to me as an actor. Kalnejais’s previous writing credits have appeared in Melbourne. I’ve not read any of her previous works.

In this response I am going to ignore the design and the performances – because it is all excellent – and so it should be – this is a highly creative, professional team of artists: and new Australian plays deserve no less.

I am now going to declare that I sat there on the second night performance and was thoroughly and utterly bored and restless. It has been a long time since a new Australian play has left me so empty and disinterested.

When a play starts with a diversion “let’s talk about breakfast at great length” – there is a level of curiosity created – but if indulged too long, we lose interest and see the conversation as glib and overwritten – pushing and forcing it’s point. (Things beyond the practical are hard to cope with.) Couple that with a death in the first scene (and a death based on a terminal illness) we have little to be curious about. If it is that we are to understand the world of the play through the opening scene – what we get in Babyteeth is a couple of deeply dysfunctional people who happen to be the parents of a sick teenage girl. The play is largely about the parents. And I don’t know why, really – and so we follow their journey through living and grieving. But surely this story would be more poignant if it was (as the play script suggests – thank you Currency Press for providing us your programmes/text- that the play is Milla’s).

It is Milla’s illness, her love story, her desire to live – and her desire to die. It is also pointed at, repeatedly that she is spoken to by the dead – which we would only have a sense of if we read the text – this isn’t evident in the production.)

But we get caught up in the world of the parents; their addictions, their love affairs, their flaws, their struggle. And since the establishing scene sets them up as fairly glib people, I didn’t really want to spend anytime with them – their’s is not the epic journey of self discovery or self transformation or sacrifice – their’s is fairly self-concerned and co-dependent. And I emphasize this is NOT the fault/responsibility of the performers – who do a valiant job to make sense of a fairly bland trajectory. The missed opportunity here of this production is to tap into Milla’s world – into her thoughts and philosophy – her sensibility. Instead the choice is made that it’s about the parents – which has limited appeal due to it’s flat-line trajectory and lack of poetic possibility.

The scene work is clumsily constructed – with entrances and exits in need of finesse and re-thinking. There are not many surprises when an actor needs to walk in view of the audience to make their “spontaneous” entrance. Additionally, I’ve said it before – Belvoir must be careful not to claim using a revolve as a house style – it usually indicates you don’t know how to move actors or furniture on and off stage – and is becoming a shorthand for identifying plays that wish they were films. I also found the jukebox style of music for scene transitions to be a little naff (alternative pop song, alternative blues song, opera anyone?).

In this production we see the dullness of domesticity, we see the ugly side of death, but there is no grand transformation – no epic love – no deeply exquisite payoff which makes us connect to the subject matter or the parental protagonists.

Additionally I think there seems to be a pattern in the portrayal of migrant Australians as the wise, yet quirky elder – please refer to Neighbourhood Watch. And one day I hope to see multi-language/mulit accented new Australian works which are much more than a white middle-class story wherein the protagonists learn to love/let go/grow from a quirky stranger with an accent. It makes me as squeamish as the “noble savage” or “helpful native” portrayals of indigenous people in early Australian plays. I hope one day we can get over identifying difference as “other.”

The most fascinating aspect of the story is that between Moses and Milla – the lovestory which is not necessarilly physical. It is an interesting paring – the junkie/dealer and the frail/schoolgirl. It’s interesting because there has to be something in their relationship which satisfies that which they lack. But this production, due to the clutter of the other characters, detracts from them – and we are told about their adventures – but never see them – except for a climactic scene in Milla’s bedroom. As such it is easy to read Moses as a parasite, or freeloader. Beyond the first scene we don’t see evidence of his love -nor do we ever get a sense of Milla beyond that of “teenage girl with cancer.”

We are also left baffled at the scene with Milla’s parents eating sandwiches and not having sex in his office.

And we’re not sure how their neighbour, Tobey, an unwed 23 year old mother to be can afford to live next door to a psychiatrist and his family. Housing commission? Or is Tobey independently wealthy?

The redemption of this production comes through the writers and the director’s note at the back of the program – an open love letter to each other. (I find it slightly embarrassing that Flack has been in his post THAT long and has only just figured out what a delight writers are – and how working with them as director NOT their scripts’ “doctor” is a sheer honour, pleasure and delight.) I also loved Kalnejais’s description of the inspiration point of this play – and I thought it was indeed a huge pity in some ways that this wasn’t her story – that we didn’t get more of those moments she offers in her note onstage in Milla’s story.

I was left disengaged with the world of the play – and thought often of Hitchcock’s quote: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out” – where as this was like all the dull bits strung together to show us how bland and uninspiring life is – how people live and die without making much of an impact – unlike migrant music teachers who unclog frustrated middle-class parents’ ability to express themselves. And the last scene emphasises the fact that this play is about Milla’s mum – when it should have/could have been about Milla. Perhaps this could have been the mother’s play if we only saw her and the piano teacher? Or perhaps this play could have just had the dad and the neighbour? Or just Milla and Moses – but the tri-relationship structure didn’t work for me – and left me observing the scene work and the dialogue as more of a writerly (or improvisatonal) exercise than a compelling narrative.

However, it appears I am alone in this as Jason Blake:
And John McCallum seemed to find it an emotional journey:

I want to see more from Kalnejais’s work and perhaps directed by Sam Strong or Lee Lewis?

In any case, despite my sturdy reservations, I urge everyone to see it and make up their own minds…