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Brutality as theatre

Review: Let The Right One In – Black Swan Theatre ◆
Heath Ledger Theatre, 15 November ◆
Review by Xan Ashbury ◆

“There is only one thing missing – a past.”

In the play’s prologue, an unseen narrator puts the brutal into Brutalist architecture.  It’s 1981 in Blackeberg, on the outskirts of Stockholm, we are told.  Whilst the suburb – full of three-storey concrete apartment blocks – was built in the 1950s “to be perfect”, we soon see that the lived reality of its residents is a different story.  My mind went to Winston Smith in his crummy flat in Victory Mansions.

Let The Right One In is adapted for the stage by Jack Thorne from the cult classic Swedish novel and film by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who grew up in Blackeberg.  It won an award for best new play in 2014 in London and has since been staged around the world.

Critics of Brutalist architecture often describe its buildings as “cold-hearted”, “inhuman”, “hideous” and “monstrous”.  It is as if Lindqvist used the same checklist when constructing his cast of characters.

At its heart, this reboot of the vampire myth is about the fundamental need for connection and friendship in a difficult and isolating world.

Bruce McKinven’s set, a three-tiered structure representing an apartment block, allows the action to play out in a series of short scenes – giving it a filmic quality.  Often, this is enhanced by Michael Carmody’s video and animation, projected onto sliding screens capable of enclosing the cubed performance spaces.  At other times, the set doubles as a Rubik’s cube.

Experiencing the incredible set, Richard Vabre’s masterful lighting design and Rachel Dease’s ethereal sonic landscape, is in itself worth the price of the ticket.

In the opening scene, characters dance alone to 80s music, in each of the nine flats.  While quirky and visually stunning – it is clear this will not be a pleasurably nostalgic story.  We are about to bear witness to a world underpinned by oppression and perversion.  From the outset, we are involuntary voyeurs and viewing these characters’ private joys and, most often, their suffering, is unsettling.

In her director’s notes, Clare Watson describes the play as a call to action: never be complicit with persecution.  “We can all be vigilant and valiant and, we can all act with agency and responsibility, we can all call out the monsters.  And perhaps we all have the monster within us.”

Sophia Forrest is fine to watch as the immortal vampire Eli, who is stuck in a 12-year-old mind and body.  Gifted with the power of flight, Eli effortlessly scales the three-storey set.  It is a heartbreaking irony, given her relentless need for human blood keeps her chained to the creepy and exploitative partner/supplier Hakan (Steve Turner) for so long.

Ian Michael is convincing as 12-year-old Oskar, rendered desperately lonely by a cold, absent father (Maitland Schnaars), a depressed, alcoholic mother (Alison Van Reeken) and merciless school bullies.  Michael does well to convey Oskar’s curiosity for Eli, which ascends (or descends, depending on your perspective) into love before he is pulled inexorably into her quest for survival – and she for his.

Rory O’Keefe swaggers menacingly as Jonny, Oskar’s tormentor.  While Clarence Ryan shines as Jonny’s reluctant offsider, Micke.

Inevitably, Bram Stoker’s 1897 Dracula is still the reference point by which other vampires are judged.  The whole male/vampire/female paradigm is inherently sexist.  In Dracula, the oppressed women can either settle for the role of victim or gain power by giving in to the seduction of the vampire.  Fast forward more than a century and little has changes in popular vampire narratives such as Twilight.  It is still based on the premise of submissive heroines who delight in giving up their agency to dashing, square-jawed male vampires.

This production of Let The Right One In not only subverts vampire genre’s troubling ideas about gender, but race, too.  Usually the snow-white skin of the vampire’s love interest is fetishized.  Instead, here Oskar is played by a proud Noongar man.

What does this all mean?  I am still scratching my head, to be brutally honest.  While I found myself wanting to sympathise with Eli – to see her as an empowered victim of circumstance, who had probably fallen prey to a Dracular-style vampire all those years earlier, I could not warm to her.

The climatic scene in which she saves Oskar is bittersweet.  It made me reflect on the murderous ideologies some marginalised youth are drawn to, in the quest for belonging.

The resolution is similarly unsettling.  Not that this comes as much of a shock.  Often, there are no happy endings in narratives told by or about oppressed or marginalised people – because their life on the margins is a struggle and sometimes survival itself is a type of victory. Ultimately, Let The Right One In raises more questions than answers.

Let The Right One In is Watson’s directorial debut for Black Swan and this is its Australian premiere.  Judging by the enraptured response from the audience, it represents a thrilling new chapter for the beloved theatre company.

Let The Right One In runs until December 3rd

Photo: Sophie Forrest photographed by Daniel J. Grant.

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