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REVIEW: The Sea Project | Griffin Theatre, Sydney

You can turn back the boats, but things will still wash up on the shore. Some will find refuse. Others, treasure.

Nitin Sawhnee related a telling anecdote on a Q&A past, in which he described standing beside Mandawuy Yunupingu at an anti-refugee rally revved up by Philip Ruddock in Darwin, in which Ruddock the dill referred to the threat of boat people. “But you mob are the boat people!” piped up the otherwise characteristically reserved Yunupingu. Yes, we’re all boat people, us whitefellas. We all washed up on the shore, from somewhere else. With us, comes our baggage and our memories; or at least the ones we choose to hang onto. The rest may be pushed down into a kind of psychical suitcase, fit to burst and apt to do so at any moment. We bring our accents and our particular prisms, through which we look at life.

Elise Hearst, writer of The Sea Project, stresses “this is just another boat story”. It’s something of a hybrid: the uncertain melding of a fictional character fixed in her mind alongside her antecedents’ migrational experience. Given that we’re substantially a nation of migrants, as Mandawuy was so quick to remind us, many, many of us will relate all too well to the strangeness of Hearst’s dark fairytale (for that is the overwhelming aesthetic landscape) in which Eva’s inexplicable sudden appearance in Bob’s seaside home rattles us with its mysterious underpinnings.

We know nothing of her backstory. Neither, apparently, does she. She can’t remember. But she seems to know songs and identify strongly with them. When the play opens, we catch her singing a distended rendition of Sea Of Love. She relates also to the name Eva and take sit to be her own. She knows, too, that she takes her teas black, with three sugars One of her fingers is missing. And much else.

Bob, like us, senses tragedy. And secrets. He probes; but gently. He seems well aware he may awaken a sleeping giant that won’t easily be lulled again into dormancy. And, sure enough, it comes to pass, one fine day, or dark and stormy night, or whatever, Mciek turns up, sweaty, smelly and dishevelled, looking like he’s had a long, hard journey. He’s stunned to realise Eva doesn’t remember him at all. Maciek’s presence puts Bob ill at ease and, as it turns out, for good reason. They drink vodka together, as a kind of competitive sport. Both want Eva.

At first I thought Eva was a Polish mermaid, some kind of Stygian Daryl Hannah, making a different kind of splash. But the veil of metaphor shifts, while never really clearing completely. It doesn’t matter. If anything, it adds to the drama, the mystery and the mystique. The Sea Project is a kind of meditation on migration, dislocation, trauma and memory. Who is that boy on the beach? Does he even exist? Or is he a figment of Eva’s imagination; a figure in a dream? The lines between the living and the dead seem to be deliberately blurred. Memory is, at once, alive and dead. And so are those who remember.

Hearst and director Paige Rattray (under the auspices of production company Arthur, of which Rattray is co-founder) have proven themselves as something of a dynamic duo perviously in New Theatre’s production, last year, of Dirtyland. Here, they reinforce the strength and power of their collaboration. Behind them we shouldn’t underestimate the dramaturgical influence of Amelia Evans or support of assistant director Catherine David.

Designer David Fleischer has devised a less-is-more stage, with a floor of reflective panels that emulates the soul-mirror that is the sea and which echoes the confrontational content of the slow flood of memories Eva allows to seep through gates she paradoxically tries to keep closed. Ross Graham’s lighting shows a rare precision in helping to calibrate mood. Jennifer White’s voice coaching has resulted in overwhelmingly convincing accents, while Tom Hogan’s composition and live performance is extremely effective in setting a haunting, almost chilling vibe that’s very David Lynch, or Wim Wenders,

Travis Cardona is Samuel, the affable, guileless boy on the beach, real, imagined or dreamt, who befriends, bewitches and bothers Eva. As a wide-eyed youth, brimming with Peter Pan-like vitality, he is well-cast. Cardona might do harmless mischief rather well, but Justin Cotta, as the Johnny-come-lately Maciek, dons a rather more menacing and malevolent persona. His intensity is compelling, such that it’s hard to take your eyes off him. Iain Sinclair as Bob, a small-time furniture-maker and old-school bloke’s bloke, has a similar capacity to engage and rivet one’s attention. He has impeccable comic sensibilities and can do much with the merest look, gesture, or inflection. (What was striking was the relative similarity of both his role and performance to his recent turn in The Highway Crossing, for Tamarama Rock Surfers). Meredith Penman, as the histrionic Eva, would almost have you believing she really is a traumatised, neurotic Polish woman. Yes, the cast is very good indeed.

I’m not saying The Sea Project is an easy play to watch, or even that its metaphor is always completely cohesive or coherent, but it has an aesthetic disposition and sophistication, heart and soul which, despite its flaws (the last  scene is questionably Hollywooden) provokes us to think again about our origins, fates, fears, desires, hopes and dreams.

That’s an experience always worth having.

The details: The Sea Project plays the Griffin Theatre until September 29. Tickets on the company website.

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