A scene from Water, featuring Glenda Linscott. Amy Mathews. Emily Rose Brennan. Richard Maganga
News, Performing arts, Reviews, Theatre

The perils of polemic

Review: Black Swan State Theatre Company, Water ·
Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Review by Varnya Bromilow ·

As we all come to grips with the most pressing issue of our age – humanity’s impact on our planet – it’s only fitting that this theme makes its way onto our stages. As is often the case, theatre is miles ahead of cinema or TV in grappling with this topic – it’s hard to make art that reflects our growing concern, while not straying too far into the boredom of strident polemic. So far, at least, it’s been left to theatre to press the case.

With Water, Melbourne-based playwright Jane Bodie has created a work for Black Swan State Theatre Company that is as ambitious as it is broad-ranging. Set in three different time periods and places, the play examines two of Australia’s thorniest political challenges – climate politics and refugees.

The first and strongest act is set on Molloy Island off WA’s Southwest in the not too distant future. Water has become scarce, birds have all but died out and food rationing is in place. We meet Peter (Igor Sas), a disgraced politician, recently forced to resign over his handling of refugee policy; his wife, Beth (Glenda Linscott) and the couple’s daughters Gemma (Amy Mathews) and Joey (Emily Rose Brennan). Gemma, a corporate lawyer, and Joey, a hippy traveller, have returned to the family’s holiday home to celebrate Peter’s birthday. Joey has been travelling for years and, as with all prodigal offspring, her return is cause for joy, dampened slightly by the fact that she has invited along a friend (and African immigrant), Yize (Richard Maganga).

A scene from 'Water', set in a holiday home on Molloy Island.
An undercurrent of tension: Igor Sas (Peter), Glenda Linscott (Beth) and Amy Mathews(Gemma) in the first act of ‘Water’. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

Bodie begins slowly, casting out small measures of narrative and context that makes the play an enjoyable tease for half of the first act. Why exactly did Peter leave politics? Why is Beth so on edge? Why does Gemma seem so irritated? What are Joey’s motives in inviting Yize? Director Emily McLean paces the show beautifully, creating an undercurrent of tension that is bound to explode. She is aided in this effort by a gorgeous soundscape and score from Clint Bracknell. Beginning with the clatter of parrots, an echo of a more bountiful time, Water is notable for its aural sparseness. We feel the absence of the birds, just as we feel the absence of water. The silence at the show’s beginning builds via stilted conversation, elongated pauses, until finally – with a remarkable soliloquy from Yize – the dam bursts. Maganga’s performance here was so impassioned, so utterly authentic, that it was followed by spontaneous applause from the packed house.

But, despite the talent of the actors, Water is a deeply flawed work. For a contemporary piece written by a female playwright, the raft of characters is alarmingly cliched. We have the absent poli dad; the long-suffering, needy wife; the wild, irresponsible daughter and the corporate careerist. I understand the seduction of writing about characters we are familiar with – there’s little an audience enjoys more than seeing itself reflected onstage – but for a new work, these roles seemed all too predictable. Of course the roguish daughter is there to cause trouble! Of course the corporate careerist is secretly unhappy! In writing such broad caricatures, Bodie underestimates the capacity of her audience to comprehend something more nuanced.

A scene from 'Water'. A nurse examines a patient's throat.
Bodie takes the audience to Ellis Island in 1921. Pictured are Amy Mathews and Glenda-Linscott. Photo: Daniel J Grant.

By the end of the first act though, we are engaged. We know these people, we care about them. Minor irritations like the distraction of Gemma’s resignation can be overlooked in favour of the over-riding pull of any good story – what happens next? But, in an ill-advised attempt to underscore the injustice of Australia’s refugee policy, the next act deprives us of this satisfaction. Instead, Bodie takes us to Ellis Island in 1921 where an elderly white Australian couple is attempting to emigrate to the United States. By drawing an apt but facile comparison with immigration systems elsewhere, Bodie again underestimates her audience. Her point was already made with stirring eloquence through the vessel of Yize – the clunky comparison doesn’t make the point stronger, it weakens it.

Similarly, when we are then transported to Queensland in 1905 in a brief reference to the slave trade that supplied the labour for Australia’s cane plantations, I had no idea where we were or why. Compounding the confusion is Bodie’s decision to use similar names for the characters in each setting. But what happened to the people on Molloy Island? When, finally, the playwright brings us briefly back to the characters of the first act, we are left without any meaningful resolution.

By divorcing us from the characters of the first act, Bodie sacrifices audience enjoyment to belabour her point – our climate policies are failing; our refugee policies are inhumane; we are not learning from history. As someone who agrees wholeheartedly with Bodie’s politics, it pains me to see this sort of didacticism onstage. Making theatre with a political message is extremely difficult; making theatre with a political message while avoiding the perils of polemic is even harder.

Water plays until May 26.

Pictured top are (L-R): Glenda Linscott (Beth), Amy Mathews (Gemma), Emily Rose Brennan (Joey) and Richard Maganga (Yize). Photo: Daniel J Grant.

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Water
Calendar, May 19, Performing arts, Theatre

Theatre: Water

9 – 26 May @ State Theatre Centre of WA ·
Presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company ·

Water by Jane Bodie begins in Western Australia in the not-too-distant future, where we meet with a once powerful politician about to celebrate his birthday at the family’s island home – a retreat from the world that has clearly seen better days. There’s no water in the taps, there are no birds in the sky and to top it off, an unexpected guest arrives for dinner.

WARNING: Adult themes

Book via www.bsstc.com.au

More info:
www.bsstc.com.au/plays/water

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