On Friday night I attended two events that gave me renewed hope in the craft of playwriting and the genre of the dialogue-driven play still being alive and relevant, at least in Perth.
Giving Up The Ghosts is a co-production by The Blue Room and Owl Productions. It’s the debut play by Perth comedian Sarah Young, who also performs in Barefaced Stories, a regular Perth stand-up storytelling night at The Bird. Perhaps this background contributes to her strengths as a writer: sharp dialogue; a strong sense of character; an even stronger sense of the onstage interaction between characters as the motor of dramatic theatre; a sensitivity to the need for space between the lines for both actors and audience; and a capacity to keep us hanging on every word and guessing what’s going to happen next right up until the last lines.
It would be too easy spoiling things, and in any case misleading to say what Giving Up is ‘about’. Maybe that’s true of most plays or works of art that are worth their salt. In this case, the ‘salt’ consists of two extremely fine performances by Georgia King and Paul Grabovac, and some extremely well-judged direction from Joe Lui (who is also the lighting and sound designer), plus a simple but effective set and costume design by Sarah Chirichilli.
Without going into the ostensibly ‘dark’ subject-matter, let me say that I found the whole experience unexpectedly ‘light’, illuminating and even strangely uplifting. This is largely due to the intelligence of the writing, performances and direction, all which consistently affirm the capacity of human beings (dare I say including actors) to make decisions for themselves. This is even true of characters like ‘Ruth’ and ‘Steve’, who have (perhaps permanently) lost their overall sense of where (if anywhere) they belong on this earth.
In this respect, while marking a departure from Joe’s previous work as a director (and especially from his ‘post-dramatic’ work with Renegade Productions), Giving Up The Ghosts is true to what I see as Joe’s underlying philosophy of personal, political and artistic freedom. Perhaps this makes him the ideal director for a play whose subject-matter might otherwise easily fall prey to moralising or sentimentality. In short: he doesn’t get in the way. For most part (with a few reservations) the same is true of the lighting, sound, staging and design. I wasn’t convinced about one or two decisions here, but these reservations were easily forgotten in the context of a consistently involving experience, especially in the intimate confines of the Blue Room Studio.
To be sure, there’s nothing earth-shatteringly innovative about the work, as a play or a production. But in this case, that’s part of what makes the whole thing so effective. The old ‘two-hander’ as a genre has a venerable tradition behind it arguably going back to Aeschylus, who only used two actors (apart from the chorus), at least until Sophocles added a third; and the play steadfastly observes the dramatic unities of action, time and place (actually Aristotle’s unity of time was confined to ‘a single revolution of the sun’, and unity of place is a neo-classical addition, so in this sense Giving Up the Ghosts is a very neo-classical work).
Credit must go equally to Georgia and Paul’s courageously truthful performances — courageous because they don’t tell us how to react or provide an interpretative commentary on the characters, but simply make them (and themselves) available for us to observe, sympathise, laugh, pity or judge as we choose. Ultimately however, it’s down to the writing, which makes it all possible. It made me realise what a precious commodity good playwriting really is.
I applaud the work of all the artists involved: a Perth theatre highlight for me so far this year, in terms of craft, and perhaps ethics too.
Perhaps it’s unethical to review a playreading, especially of a work in development. Nevertheless I want to comment briefly on Will O’Mahony’s new play Comaland, a public reading of which I attended along with an audience of about 30 at PICA on Friday evening before going to Giving Up the Ghosts across the lane at The Blue Room.
Will is an actor and director as well as a writer, and has directed and performed in his two previous plays for his independent theatre company The Skeletal System. He’s equally talented in all departments, and has a truly original voice as a writer. His plays explore philosophical and psychological conundrums with the aid of hypothetical fictions and ‘possible worlds’ that generically resemble science fiction and fantasy; though like much of the best work in that genre they might also be described as ‘thought experiments’. As such they employ plot structures and devices more commonly encountered in contemporary literature or cinema. In the realm of theatre, their precursors include Shakespeare’s Tempest and Calderon’s Life Is A Dream (both exceptional works of early-modern, ‘pre-scientific’ experimental drama, after which bourgeois theatre largely opted for realism as its dominant mode).
Even as an unstaged work-in-progress, Comaland is a dazzling play. It’s set in a kind of non-theological limbo or liminal world between life and death in which relationships unfold between complete strangers, parents and children, humans and other animals — or even objects (inanimate or otherwise). It’s either a stage designer’s nightmare or delight, and I can’t wait to see it realised — soon, I hope, and properly resourced as a major new play that deserves to be widely seen in Perth and elsewhere.
One of six projects supported by the WA Department of Culture and the Arts inaugural Theatre Works funding round last year (which distributed State funding previously allocated to small-to-medium companies Deckchair and Thin Ice, both of which folded in 2012), Comaland has been developed over the last nine months with Will at the helm using various actors to test and refine the play. The process has clearly paid dividends, at least artistically, and incidentally makes a good case for at least the some of the Theatre Works funding being given directly to artists rather than being entirely absorbed by the remaining small-to-medium companies and organisations.
DCA has since conducted a consultation process to determine what should happen to these funds in future, and has now released a series of options which involve significant infrastructural changes to the existing small-to-medium sector. These options include the creation of ‘new entities’, directives to existing companies, and the reallocation of venue resources under the aegis of a curatorial ‘hub’. It’s still early days, and the dust is yet to settle; DCA is currently receiving feedback from all quarters, in response to which it will doubtless refine and modify its options before making a decision. Whatever they finally choose to do, one can only hope that plays like Comaland or Giving Up the Ghosts and artists like Will or Joe don’t miss out. The point of arts funding organisations, after all, is to support art, not organisations.
Giving Up the Ghosts is at The Blue Room Studio until 12 July. Comaland is hopefully coming soon to a theatre near you. The DCA Theatre Funding Consultancy findings are currently leaking out all over town. Please try to remain calm and follow directions from your front-of-house staff.