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REVIEW: Water | Sydney Theatre

Water is awash with theatrical transcendence, brimming with crosscurrents. The independent show at Sydney Theatre last month broke new ground.

Water smashes through the fourth wall. Co-producers Filter and Lyric (Hammersmith) take a sledgehammer to the sacred cow of theatre, bringing the wizards from behind the curtain right onto the stage. So, there’s the stage manager. There’s the composer and sound designer. There are precious few entries and exits. Costume changes are effected on stage. There’s video and live ‘foley’ from the three performers (the sound guy is classified as a fourth performer). It’s radical. And refreshing. A veritable reinvention of theatre.

The production itself is based on a powerful idea, inspired by childhood memories of water. Mucking about in boats and such like. The idea is based in science: whereas most molecules repel each other, water molecules are ‘sociable’. Filter realised early on, too, that anything that dealt with water almost inevitably brought politics to bear, given the bitter realities of drinking water shortages and climate change. But the genius of this work resides in the conflation of the molecular with the political.

Allow me to clarify. The notion is that people are like water molecules but, increasingly, going against type, becoming more and more isolated. If one extrapolates the personal risks associated with such behaviour to the political, one has rather a promising hypothesis, perhaps, for communication breakdown at the individual and collective level; one leading inevitably to the other. Next to the kind of fear that tends to denial, it provides a plausible explanation for our failure, at the sociopolitical level, to come to grips with the big issues, like global warming.

Such a concept could easily prove impossibly ambitious to grapple with in an eighty-five minute piece and, in all likelihood, usually would fall flat on its face. But Filter has managed to tease out its premise through interlocking narratives that breach temporal and geographical barriers. It’s as if the company has said, “how can we make this as difficult as possible?”, then upped the ante even more. Yet they’ve run their own gauntlet and emerged bruiseless.

Filter is, first and foremost, Ollie Dimsdale and Ferdy Roberts, who are co-founders and artistic directors. The third man, as it were, is Chris Phillips, whose credited as composer, as well as performer, as his live sound mixing is not only audible but, as alluded to above, visible. For this production Poppy Miller joins Dimsdale and Roberts as an actor, but also earns the broader title of performer, as she, too, contributes to sound effects. Over seeing it all is director David Farr, immensely distinguished as such, not least as former artistic director of the Lyric, co-production partner.

It’s worth noting the compatibility of the co-producers in pioneering brave, new work, as well as in advocating refreshing philosophies and visions for theatre which are palpable in the work. Filter’s key aim seems to be “to expose the workings of a production”, while Lyric “aims to produce work that is provoking, entertaining, popular, eclectic, messy, contradictory and diverse”, which beats the hell out of the pseudo-corporate statements many companies re probably guilty of these days. To reflect, embrace and unashamedly endorse the anarchy of the creative process sounds healthy to me.

On entering the theatre, the stage looks, suitably, wet. It’s not. Just cleverly lit by Kate Greaves, according to Jon Clark’s design. The performers and others are soon seen on stage. There’s no curtain. House lights dim and Dimsdale introduces stage manager Jess Gow and his fellow performers very casually. Without fanfare or fuss, they launch straight into the performance.

What, in lesser hands, could so easily lapse into an orgy of technological showiness, while impressing, never threatens to be anything more, or less, than in the service of the ideas and stories. So, when we see too people in face-to-face conversation, but one stands at the front of the stage and one well back, it doesn’t seem strange, distracting, aggravating, nor pretentious, but a brilliant, transparent, immediate metaphor, pointing to dislocation and emotional distance. Similarly, video projections of trans-global exchanges via FaceTime leave the same cold, empty impression. It’s sophisticated scene and mood setting. Two people, at different times, arrive at their hotel room. Both their stories are told simultaneously, with shared set furniture. It’s bold. It’s downright bloody dangerous. And it works. Dimsdale brings a tiny Marshall amp on stage, used to simulate the low-fi of a telephone conversation. Again, you almost think, “this shouldn’t work; it couldn’t”; but it does.

Poppy Miller is consummately Claire, an almost invincible, high-level envoy, charged with negotiating a workable, influential outcome on climate change at a G8 summit in Vancouver. Meanwhile, her disappointed boyfriend (Dimsdale), desperately in need of her support, is in Mexico, set to plumb the darkest depths of the ocean in a record-breaking dive, thereby realising a dream. It comes down to a duel between her relationship and her career. Her career wins. Every time. She doesn’t even seem to know why. A habit? Overdeveloped work ethic? Fear of commitment? All of the above?

By dint of on-stage technology, “lonely” lighting and the most finely calibrated and telling performances, with plenty going on between the lines, we deeply feel the despair on both sides. He’s about to plunge into the boundless oceanic unknown. She’s already submerged. Poetically, the gulf between them is replicated in her steeply deteriorating relationships and negotiations with G8 partners; there’s tide of resistance even her indomitable determination can’t overcome. To make matters darker still, in the slim moments between meetings, she discovers she’s pregnant. Concurrently, he misses his chance, pipped at the post by a rival. Rightly or wrongly, he blames her, putting up a wall that makes it impossible for her to communicate her momentous news.

Roberts is Peter Johnson, a marine biologist whose run away from an unhappy marriage in which he’s drowning, in a sea of depression. He secures tenure at a Canadian university. He remarries. Sires a second son (Dimsdale), who grows to become a prominent breakfast radio personality. The first (also played by Roberts) leads his own life of quite desperation as a lowly-paid environmental officer, back in the old country. The half-brothers are destined to meet upon the professor’s death. In this, we see the clash of two worlds. Two starkly different personalities. Two dramatically different life experiences. And two fathers, in one. The first, a deserter. The second, a good-humoured man who came to join a yacht club. Roberts and Dimsdale also excel in intuiting and communicating all the painful nuances of sibling rivalry.

Water is brimming with crosscurrents that, like life on earth, all flow into the same pool. Likewise, disparate strands of sound, music, lighting, video and performance intermingle, tributaries of the same mighty vein of drama. The final scene, bordering on kitsch, but managing to be beautiful, is the play’s parting success, leaving us with a reminder of the necessity for communion with our own and all other kinds.

Water is awash with theatrical transcendence.

The details: Water played Sydney Theatre from September 12-23.

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