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A moment of Solitude: Mayday plays an indie shot in the arm

What do you get when you put 16 writers, nine directors and 19 actors into a room? The inaugural Mayday Playwrights’ Festival. The theatrical shorts are a shot in the arm for Sydney indie theatre.

Some of the creatives behind the Mayday! Playwrights Festival

It all started with an empty space. Jeremy Waters’ two years of slog to stage a New York show ended in tears. One of two obsessive-compulsive theatremakers who couldn’t bear to see a theatre space vacant, even if it meant sacrificing all hope of sleep, he importuned the omnipresent Augusta Supple in the three weeks available to contrive something to fill it. The inaugural Mayday Playwrights’ Festival is the outcome.

Regrettably, I missed the first of this three-week festival (themed ‘No Nudity, Weapons or Naked Flames’), but caught the second, ‘The Solitudes’. The entirety brings together 16 writers, nine directors and 19 actors. It’s a shot in the arm for indie theatre, that’s for sure.

The Solitudes (we’re into week three now) comprised a series of short monologues, beginning with Noelle Janaczewska’s Trish, first produced about four years ago, for New’s aptly-named Brand Spanking New season performed by Catherine Terracini and directed by Anthony Skuse. Trish, essentially, was an unassuming portrait, personality profile, call it what you will, of a young woman. Of course, by and by, we come to suspect it’s a pitch for RSVP, or similar, with all the awkwardness, foot-in-mouth faux pas and inadvertent embarrassment that implies. For the most part, the script is believable. She’s pretty conventional, though some of her more illicit predilections stretch credulity, as they seem out-of-step with the character as we read her. Or as I read her. Still, maybe this is Janaczewska’s acute observation of what people do, when called upon to talk about themselves: strive to make themselves more interesting than they really are. In any case, Skuse’s direction is drum-tight and Terracini’s delivery nuanced and note-perfect. It’s an impressive start. If I had to choose a winning moment, it would be the opening, which exemplifies Janaczewska’s mischievously mean-spirited outlook: “I have a grandmother, a sister, four cousins, and two-and-a-half nephews; I find them all loathsome. Especially the nephews. My sister is six months’ pregnant with another one. I’m confident I’ll dislike him too.”

Julia-Rose Lewis’ Shooting Hoops, performed by Luke Carson and directed by Sama Ky Balson, isn’t quite as transparent. Jude is palpably anxious. He has something to tell us, but he doesn’t seem entirely sure what it is. One suspects he just wants to connect. Like so many of us, he seems to be leading a life of quiet desperation or, at least, quiet isolation. It could be that he’s suffering a chronic mental illness and is between episodes. Or an addict struggling to remain clean. Maybe both. Or he could be you. Or I. It appears his co-dependent girlfriend died, despite his best attempts to set an example and provide a reason for her to live. But, as Jude has painfully learned, the depth of one’s love for another isn’t always requited: “It’s funny, I s’pose, that in the end, my reason for living is dead.” Ouch! This could almost be documentary and, responding to Balson’s sympathetic baton, Carson nails it to our hearts, not least with the namesake analogy of the simple pleasure of playing basketball and relishing the fleeting elation of a slam-dunk. There aren’t many slam-dunks in life. Better to celebrate each and every one, no matter how trivial.

World Creates Itself sees Alex Bryant-Smith perform David Finnigan’s script, directed by Augusta Supple. By way of Smith’s character, Finnigan affords us an intergalactic overview of space-time. In a way, it carries the same message of urgency, the same call to another’s arms, as Shooting Hoops. But by vastly different means. Rather than drawing us in to a claustrophobic relationship, between people and drugs, this play jettisons us into deep space, eternal mysteries, chaos, grit, dust, rock, ice and gases. Perspective is what it’s all about, releasing us, for a moment, from our arrogance, sense of dominion and entitlement, our collective Earth-centric ego, to remind us of the truth, the brutal reality of our speck-sized, flash-in-the-pan place in the universe. Like Hoops, it’s sobering and Smith relates its dense energy engagingly.

This Storm Shall Come is by Shannon Murdoch; performed by Lauren Hamilton-Neill; directed by Ngaire O’Leary. Murdoch harnesses that edgy, unpredictable, slightly dangerous adolescent angst some of us who’ve left it decades behind may still recall, if not altogether fondly. Almost inevitably, by mandatory designation, her mother’s a bitch who doesn’t understand. Her boyfriend, Patrick, on the other hand, is lost heroic. She’s confident has done his time and learnt his lesson. Give the kid a break. And even though she seems to have reneged on a promise to keep her friend Jemima company while her estranged parents fruitlessly try and rescue and unsalvageable marriage. Patrick predicts a storm and there’s a vague sense of the impending. Meanwhile, in her confusion of guilt and anxiety, Gin’s biggest problem is signal strength. But then, at any age, we all clamour to send and receive signals.

Melita Rowston’s The Crash is performed by Ainslie McGlynn and directed by Fiona Hallenan-Barker. It’s a dawn-till-dusk battle of wits and wills between Hayley and her young son. By 10 in the morning, he’s had it. She’s a train wreck, having already played trains, sung, danced and cried. It’s a war zone. A battleground. There’s only one consolation and compensation. “He sleeps so close. Closer than any lover. He clings to my hair; cries into my chest’; curls his little fist ’round my fingers.” McGlynn is intense and compelling. Even those of us who have no children, but who’ve observed and felt the demands placed upon haggard friends, intuited their longings for another life even amidst their abiding, boundless love for monsters of their own making, heard their silent, but deafeningly loud question (WHY?!), can empathise, while we speculate on what happened to the father in this family. Did he die in a crash? Or is the crash of the mother’s psyche, as she goes head on, headlong, head-to-head, day in, day out, in a love-hate relationship with her little boy? Such is the apparent impact of parenthood.

Ava Karuso’s Soap, performed by Sonya Kerr, directed by Mackenzie Steele, is eery, surreal; ghostly. I’m not sure Alice is still with us. One way, or another, she’s far gone. yet she can’t let go. She can’t leave. She may be, technically, dearly departed, but she hasn’t gone anywhere. Even though her nearest and dearest have long since left her behind. It’s an unenviable predicament. Rock. Hard Place. Her dog, Dip, seems to be missing-in-action. The hot date she’s anticipating is running very late. The swing in the backyard’s no longer there. But she won’t give up hope. Karuso brings the poetry. Kerr turns it to tear-jerking tragedy. “I sink into the walls. I become part of the building. I become splinters of wood and the leather on the lounge and the air in the fridge. You get rid of the shower. And you take down all the photos of me. And I feel the wind blowing through me. And you stop crying. And you leave me. And I cuddle with Dip every night after Mum buries her. And I wait at the window. And Mum stops watering the garden. And I watch as jasmine flowers wither in your world and blossom in mine. And you put Mum in a home. And they take the house. And I try to gather all the roots I can in my hands but it’s not enough. They cut down all the trees. And I flee to the attic, but it’s all been torn up and there’s no roof any more. And they pour in cement. And turn our home into an apartment block; but no one stays long. Then into a parking lot where all the cars crash. Then into a shopping centre. And Dip and I spend our time smashing plates in shops because our home is gone but there’s nowhere else to haunt.”

Spring, performed by Matt Charleston and directed by Gus Supple, is by Jonathan Gavin. Charleston is confident and characterful as he relates his sensual, wet daydream. “It’s my friend’s house. He’s not here. There’s no one here but you and me, in the doorway of the upstairs bedroom. It’s 2am. And it’s the end of spring.” Spring, of course, a season of renewal and rebirth, is one we’d like to stay, so we might bloom, like Dorian Gray, again, and again, and again. Oh, that we could remain as vital and mischievous as Peter Pan. Gavin’s telling is seductive and Supple makes the most of the piquancy, exemplified in tweaked, taunting, tongue-in-cheek imagery: “I’m wearing an expensive shirt. You’re wearing an expensive shirt too. It’s because we’re in our mid-thirties. Let’s face it. We’re at that age when an expensive shirt helps.” Writer, director and performer are as one in their approach and the result is tasty.

Kate Gaul’s Fat Boy, performed by Tom Christophersen and directed by Nick Atkins, is almost doubtless my favourite of a fondly-regarded bunch, for its sheer, unbridled, surreal imagination. Christophersen’s performance is nigh-on perfect; again, thanks in large measure to a director with the utmost in sympathetic resonance with Gaul’s vision. Or perhaps it’s I that chimes loudest, since, sadly, like Fat Boy, I’ve an unusual appetite for donuts. Or anything sweet. Fat Boy, the play (and its narrator) has a wicked sense of humour. Take this, for example: “His mother died in childbirth. Unrelated?” Fat Boy grew up, tragically, in the suburbs of Hobart and was driven to doughnuts, at least in part, by his brothers’ mega millions win, which they chose not to share with him, despite his name being on the ticket. Doughnuts and disco dancing. As you do. Who would’ve thought he’d be capable of superheroism? But then, Clark Kent was a nerd. Fat Boy is more of a treat than churros dipped in hot chocolate.

An Alley In Two Parts, by Maxine Mellor, performed by Aaron Glenane and Claudia Barrie, directed by Kai Raisback, with music by Marty Jamieson, represented my only (slender) disappointment (ironic, in more ways than one, coming on top of Fat Boy). Gienane’s diction (as Dale) was troublesome and the performance, somehow, a little flat. It begins intriguingly enough, with Glenane on the floor, tracing a chalk line ’round his entire body, drawing us into his hollowed-out soul. There is something garden of Gethsemane about Wren’s denial of any kind of intimacy with Dale, whose ‘head is gone; it’s elsewhere; somewhere else, don’t know’. The tale has a poetic arc and cadence, but never quite affects in the way it might.

On the whole, though, Waters and Supple have brought together some of Australia’s finest: writers, actors and directors. The only downside is they have to do it all again, next year, to a similar standard. But if two people can, it’s probably them.

The details: The Mayday! Playwrights Festival is at TAP Gallery until May 25.

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