REVIEW: Tinderbox | Darlinghurst Theatre, Sydney
Tinderbox, at Sydney’s Darlinghurst Theatre, is a work of uncommon quality. Directed by Zoe Carides with great skill, it’s a dramaturgical tweak away from brilliant Australian drama.
There could hardly be a better springboard for a play about bushfires, with blazes all over the country, than the hottest Sydney summer’s day since before the war (WWII, that is). A publicist’s wet dream. Or sweat dream.
Award-winning Aussie playwright Alana Valentine’s Tinderbox is in its world premiere at Darlinghurst Theatre. While the dearly (almost) departed company of the same name gathers its resources in anticipation of its inaugural season at its new home at the Eternity Playhouse, a season of indie theatre under the banner of Theatre 19 (the street number) that began with William Zappa’s The Greening Of Grace (sorely missed by me) continues with this brand new play, directed by Zoe Carides. Not only is Carides on board, but it’s pretty much the same line-up responsible for last year’s Tarantula, which met with considerable acclaim.
Allie Mansell’s set and Ben Brockman’s lighting are hellish. Literally. Alan Lovell (firefighter, Tom), Benjamin Ross (his teenaged son and firelighter, Ben) and Nastassja Djalog (who also produces, on behalf of the issues-oriented, multi-mediated Tredwood Productions, which she founded) as their neighbour Viv, are in the hot seats. The prolific and peripatetic John Encarnacao (coincidentally, he has an erstwhile group called Warmer) has composed a spare and haunting score that punctuates and colours the textual elements in new and innovative ways. The choral chirp of cicadas. A mysterious scraping sound. A tormented clarinet. A swelling and subsiding saxophone. The tinkle of a cymbal.
Tinderbox has the temerity to take a long-lensed look at the history of bushfires in Australia. We begin with a series of synoptic statistics recounting the toll on land, home and people of major outbreaks reaching as far back as Victoria’s Black Thursday, February 6, 1851, which, as far as I know, still stands as the most massive in Australian history, with five million hectares torched. Mercifully, only 12 people died; something of a miracle, surely, considering the scale. Livestock didn’t fare so well, however. In fact, they quickly became dead stock: a million sheep and thousands of cattle. It’s sobering on a purely factual basis, but its through storytelling that Valentine affects us.
For those of us unafflicted by first-hand up-close-and-personal experience of the ravages of a firestorm, one (as AV no doubt discovered) doesn’t have to go far to hear a harrowing tale. In the foyer after, a colleague’s partner related the story, her story, of a young city girl bush bound and suddenly surrounded by a conflagration. She described doing what she had to do and thinking nothing of singed eyebrows. Nor could she indulge the luxury, in the moment, of dwelling on the woman and children who sought refuge in a water tank, only to be boiled alive.
We talk about the details of wartime atrocities, but for some reason an unspoken, complicit taboo seems to pertain to natural disasters, if her story and those encapsulated and embedded in this play are anything to go by. A somewhat puzzling hypocrisy.
I say play, but much of it reads like a poem, its cadence massaged by Enarnacao’s quite stunning composition and the rhythms of speech. Certainly, Valentine has an inventive way with words, mettle-detecting highly original metaphors. By way of but one example, this, from a monologue by Ben:
“When I see a forest of trees, I see a lot of old growth. Old ideas. Comfortable trunks, with their feet dug in. Not making any room for anything new. Starving out anything young. That’s what I see. And it makes me want to have a bit of a clear out.”
Valentine sometimes writes with such a depth of sensitivity and connectedness, you could be easily forgiven for thinking her indigenous. Some of her language is akin to land as mother, the notion of country so intrinsic to Aboriginal identity, understanding and philosophy.
But of course, Tinderbox isn’t just about fire, in the literal sense, and its bipolar capacity for destruction and regeneration. It’s about the fuel that litters our daily lives which, without warning, is prone to spontaneous combustion. Here, we’re afforded insight into the fraught relationship between single parent Tom and the son he clearly loves deeply and vice-versa. But both are hampered, in its expression, by classic Aussie male stoicism and reserve. It takes the singe and sting of public humiliation to draw admissions, admonitions and declarations out from under their armour. Viv is their Vincent Van Gogh of a neighbour: too gentle, soulful and easily affected by the day-to-day cruelties the world at large inflicts on the sensitive. Yet it’s her, the attractive, kindly, benign but principled girl next door, the young woman Ben uncharitably dismisses as a retard, that survives the flames of conflict best, while Tom and Ben are still blowing smoke.
Notwithstanding the odd lapse into didacticism and some naive and cliched speculations on the mindset of the arsonist, Tinderbox is a work of uncommon quality, with the capacity to hold one in thrall for almost every one of its 75 minutes.
Lovell looks every bit the fit firefighter. He makes the odd stumble and his delivery, at times, seems too deliberated to really pull off the naturalism the part implies. While he has flashes of brilliance, Djalog and Ross at practically no point fall short of that mark. Carides directorial skill is palpable and present, her star still in steep ascendancy.
Given a dramaturgical tweak, this is a piece of work ready for mainstage. Now, Andrew.
The details: Tinderbox plays the Darlinghurst Theatre until January 27. Tickets on the venue website.