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Dark, disturbing depiction of dysfunction

Review: The Eisteddfod, Black Swan State Theatre Company –
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA –
28 June 2017 –
Reviewed by Nina Levy –

Oscillating between funny and disturbing, The Eisteddfod, by Australian playwright Lally Katz, defies easy definition. There’s a touch of the absurd about the plot, which follows the fortunes of Abalone (Brendan Ewing) and Gerture (Natalie Holmwood), siblings who have lived together since their parents died in a freak accident. Each has an obsession – Abalone’s is winning an unnamed eisteddfod, Gerture’s is her abusive lover Ian. Fearing he will lose his sister to her obsession, Abalone draws her into his, persuading her to enter the eisteddfod as Lady Macbeth opposite his Macbeth. In the scenes that unfold, past and present, adulthood and childhood, and fantasy and reality blend and blur.

At times The Eisteddfod feels gratuitous in its depiction of dysfunctional sexual relationships. The fact that the play premiered back in 2004, when Katz was just 26, makes these scenes  both less and more surprising. That rawness, that desire to shock feels typical of a young, independent writer. At the same time, Katz’s ability to confront and discomfort the viewer is remarkable for one as young as she was at the time of writing.

The Eisteddfod
Brendan Ewing & Natalie Holmwood in ‘The Eisteddfod’. Photo: Daniel James Grant.

The flip-side of The Eisteddfod is the humour that liberally peppers the work, delivered here with dexterity by director Jeffrey Jay Fowler and his creative team and cast. Depicted via Brett Smith’s cartoon-like sound effects, the death of Abalone and Gerture’s parents (tree-pruning accident) is flippantly slapstick and sets the tone for the remainder of the play. Particularly delightful is a scene in which the action segues unexpectedly from Macbeth’s “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” soliloquy to a Scottish disco circa 1983, complete with era-appropriate choreography.

Together with lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw, Tyler Hill’s spare, smoke-stained set allows scenes to melt seamlessly into one another. The space atop the cupboards becomes a classroom, a disco ball appears from under a cardboard box, an air-conditioning vent becomes a street-lit window.

Ewing and Holmwood were outstanding, both in their primary roles as Abalone and Gerture, and in their ability to slide in and out of various secondary characters. As Abalone, Ewing was fantastically awkward, with a strange, spidery grace to his gangly limbs. Holmwood’s Gerture was dry, droll and desperate.

The Eisteddfod is not for the faint-hearted and I found its particular brand of shock therapy increasingly difficult to tolerate as the play progressed. Nonetheless, Katz’s voice is compelling. Recommended for those who like their humour black.

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