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REVIEW: Between Two Waves | Griffin Theatre, Sydney

Griffin Theatre lives up to its mantra of developing new Australian writers with a unique work on climate change — written and starring a climate scientist.

Daniel is one fucked-up, neurotic climatologist. Well, he’s really no more or less fucked-up than you. Or I. As for neurosis, climatology will do that to you, given the dark shadows that science has cast over our oblivion.

Actor Ian Meadows has done what so many work-starved actors before him have. He’s written a play. Between Two Waves premiered this week at Griffin, the company that boldly proclaims itself as Australia’s “new writing” theatre and which goes a very long way to upholding the assertion.

At 1o0 minutes, sans interval, in the crammed, stuffy confines of The Stables, with its nominally-padded upright benches, it’s an ask (not least for the actors), with the ever-present danger of exploiting climate change to elicit politically-correct nods and moans of agreement from an arty audience for its own sake. Yet BTW succeeds in weaving together some knotty, high thread-count thematic strands.

First and foremost, Daniel becomes an emblematic sponge, slowly dying for our carbon-emitting sins. Second of all, there’s a more immediately tangible, if rather oblique, critique of the empty psychological balm that is insurance and the disillusionment it brings if ever we have to make a substantial claim (as in Christchurch). Third of all, there’s a commensurate warning of the attrition the doomsday mindset can visit upon our lives and relationships should we allow the ticking clock to tock in the here-and-now, which we’re as honour-bound to celebrate as we are to mitigate against the effects of global warming.

Daniel has been backed by his university mentor, Jimmy, to apply for a post as a ministerial advisor, which is the best and worst thing that could happen to him. The best, because it affords the opportunity to make a difference. There’s a part of Daniel that longs to be a saviour, especially since, as a boy, he let his beloved little sister drown, pretending not to hear her calls for help. (At least, I think that’s what happened: it’s one of a number of narrative loose, frayed ends.) But it’s hard not to succumb to camaraderie and the human need for pack acceptance and, much to the disappointment of his mentor, Daniel settles for a watered-down, Copenhagen-style compromise. At the same time, in his heart of hearts, he well knows there’s no room for it, since compromise, in this context, may well bring annihilation.

In the midst of this, or somewhere along an uncertain timeline, in a conceit of narrative irony and poignancy, Daniel’s house is inundated by flood, destroying his life’s work and, almost as precious to him, if not moreso, cherished images of Fiona, a young woman through whom the life-force course with an intensity someone like Daniel can never truly understand. They were to have child, but how can one conscionably bring a child into a disappearing world? At least, that’s the way Daniel saw it.

Daniel tries to shape-shift his character to live up to Fiona’s demand and expectations, but the die is already cast.

Sam Strong, in his swansong as artistic director, runs a tight ship. One has the sense Tahli Corin’s dramaturgy has been a force equivalent to geological pressure too. David Fleischer’s elegantly all-white, angular design sandwiches the players as if between sedimentary layers. They’re all about to be crushed, but who’s looking at the ceiling? Matthew Marshall’s stark lighting works symphonically. Likewise, Steve Francis composition and sound design is superbly orchestrated and is largely responsible for a dramatic, baptismal climax.

Apparently, Meadows needed some convincing to play the lead, but Strong’s strong-armed persuasive powers are something for which to be very grateful. Writers acting in their own players isn’t always a reliable or advisable formula, but Meadows is unsurpassable as the fractured, serotonin-addicted depressive, Daniel. The other lamplight on stage is Ash Ricardo (Fiona) who, despite the dominance of Daniel’s stage time, almost steals the show, such is her magnetism. Solid support comes from Rachel Gordon, as insurance adjuster Grenelle, as well as Chum Ehelepola, as the cloyingly ebullient Jimmy (if any character doesn’t quite register as credible, it’s this one).

Not every scene, perhaps, is completely essential and there remains a certain lack of clarity and cohesiveness but, all in all, this is a play that will leave a lasting impression. It’s no small thing to write about a subject as dry in the science and as hot and wet in the outcome as climate change, without succumbing to didacticism or lip-service. And it’s a much bigger thing still to manage to merge the global with the personal, in a parallel storm of emotional upheaval.

If this is the first offering from the Griffin studio, it augurs a whole lot better for the future of new Australian drama than our carbon emissions do for our future, per se.

The details: Between Two Waves plays Griffin’s Stables Theatre until November 17. Tickets on the company website.

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