Singled Out

Increasingly, we’re a nation of singletons. The trends and statistics are irrefutable. (In fact, we’re a global community of singletons.)

The very present theatre-maker, Augusta Supple, always with her finger on the pulse and awake to any irregularity or change to the cultural heartbeat, feeling for any new snags in the social fabric, recently brought us Singled Out, which follows in the footsteps of her earlier productions.

In essence, her habit and talent is to curate the talents of a ragtag bunch of writers, directors, actors and others, forming the jigsawn pieces into something that resembles a cohesive whole. With this, she has done it around about as well, if not better, than on previous occasions. And that’s a compliment.

The show begins before it begins, in the upstairs foyer at Seymour. Even by the neoconservative sartorial standards of the nouveau hipster, I thought the skinny, bespectacled young man standing adjacent to a flipchart bearing the insignia of an accounting firm looked way too much of a nerd to be credible. I mean, I knew I was on the hallowed ground of Sydney Univeristy, but even so. I was right. After some minutes, he embarked on a presentation (which went progressively haywire) on demography. In Sweden, nigh-on half the population lives alone. In Sydney, we’re heading steadily towards 30%. Going solo is going gangbusters.

The irony of living alone, but in ultra-high density apartments buildings with at least a theoretically vast potential for the communal, cooperative, social and mutually supportive, has never been lost on me, nor it seems on Supple. I remember moving to Canberra for a couple of years (don’t ask) and having the experience of hardly seeing a living soul, outside work, in the entire time I spent there. This despite embarking on protracted walks, frequenting restaurants, cafes and public buildings and living in a large residential complex. And one hardly needs to recount the litany of belated, odorous discoveries of the long since deceased. Solitude has its upside. And its down. A composer, for example, can work in peace, sans distraction. But he or she may decompose just as easily, without immediately alerting another. But the brief for this project was to focus on the freedom that comes of being a solitary man. Or woman.

Eight playwrights have made singular contributions to Singled Out. In a few cases, contributions have been greater than singular. The first thing to say is that I was enamoured of Supple’s directorial decision to have all the performers on stage, leaving it to lighting designer Sian James Holland to spot individuals when their turns came. This suffused the space with the very tension to which I alluded earlier: people living side-by-side, but remaining ostensibly uninvolved with and unaware of each other’s presence, let alone implicated in each other’s lives. They might as well be living on remote rural properties. In fact, they’d probably know each other better, despite the tyranny of distance, if they did. This is, too often, the tragic irony of the trend. Don’t get me started.

The programme was top-and tailed by sequences to which the entire ensemble contributed, with composition by Leigh Perrett and choreography by Cloe Fournier (opener, ‘In Dust’); the closer featuring a song, Never Alone, written by Nadav & Jessica Chapnik Kahn, performed by Appelonia; (no, not the Apollonia who co-starred in Prince’s Purple Rain). These worked well enough to draw us in and out.

The baker’s dozen short plays began with Vanessa Bates’ Perfect, performed by Amanda Stephens Lee. It’s minimalism is riveting, with Stephens Lee square on to the audience, addressing us as if we were standing at our front door, receiving her. She’s Jo, fronting up to introduce herself to her ex’s new partner. The anxiety and humiliation is searing: it’s a potent setup, which is almost enough on its own. But it goes further. Bates exploits her premise boldly, recounting, in an almost chillingly relatable way, the impacts of a breakup. It’s a veritable cost-benefit emotional and social analysis, couched in polite and euphemistic terms; as you do, for reasons of self-preservation (holding it together) and uncodified, but understood, etiquette. Of course, she does this with humour, albeit just as stinging, as in informing her replacement how her friends believe her ex died in a horrible accident. But the humour is a felting mask and distraction from the essential, palpable pathos of the piece, in which Jo must make real and loud her announcement she’s (finally) moved on. She must paint it in red lipstick all over her former lover’s new life. Until she does that, she hasn’t really moved on. It even has a message, embodied in a phrase of Jo’s monologue: we will not keep things for good. A decision to overturn the rule her grandmother applied to the china she inherited is a masterful metaphor for transience and the incurable sense of vulnerability it brings. ASL does a very fine, focussed play nuanced dramatic justice, with a believable performance pregnant with recognition and empathy.

Our Two Sounds Therefore, Which Are One was written by Emma Magenta and features Bali Padda and Rosie Lourde as neighbours, with a seemingly impenetrable wall between them. That said, they find a way of communicating that saves to make the point discussed above: that we fail so miserably to capitalise on the community we have on our doorstep. There’s no dipping of lids, smiles or ‘good morning!’s, by and large, anymore, not even when we see the same faces, day in, day out. I told you. Don’t get me started. We, of course, are at an advantage to Sebastian and Nicola, the two neighbours who know each other not. We can peer into both their apartments, and lives, simultaneously. We quickly gather that Sebastian is an opera singer (of indeterminate range) of highly pedantic, if not obsessive-compulsive, disposition. He runs through his breathing exercises and scales in an absurdly, worryingly, accentuated manner. Meanwhile, Nicola splits her time, haphazardly, between gossiping to a girlfriend about a man, dancing ’round her living room and trying to get off the phone to her mother. They’re both intensely aggravating characters, who find a strange camaraderie, competing percussively, using sundry objects as instruments for their cacophonous improvisations. While, to a point, entertaining and not without intention, it’s overwritten and I, for one, couldn’t wait to see the last of these thoroughly unlikable, brash and boorish people, who might be made for each other but, as a couple, argue strongly against the community engagement I’ve been obliquely mourning and for which I’ve been arguing. All things considered, it’s a something of a pale effort on Magenta’s part: an idea in search of a better-developed script. Sorry I can’t say better.

Ikea (Part 1), written by Grace de Morgan and performed by Josipa Draisma, says a lot in a very brief time. Annie’s building a shelf. An Ikea shelf. One of the bravest, most emblematic affirmations of of self-reliance any human can embrace. The phone rings. It’s her anxious mother, expressing her fear her daughter may deteriorate to become a lonely woman with countless cats. It certainly makes for a better ad break than Harvey Norman.

Luke Carson, erstwhile actor, wrote Like It Was Yesterday, which features Leofric Kingsford-Smith. Meet Frank. He doesn’t look like a shrinking violet, or violet of any kind, until we contemplate his satin robe, about which he seems quite particular. And serious. From an old shoebox, he removes a photo of a woman. It looks to have been taken some time ago. He then carefully applies his lipstick, before fitting his wig, which he dutifully and lovingly brushes. He sips tea from a fine china cup, beholding the photo. ‘I miss you mum’, he intones. Somehow, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise and, while the ritual is arresting and opens a window on some secretive lives, it feels a little unsatisfying, despite a valiant performance by Kingsford-Smith.

Bates returns, with Wishbone, performed by Amber McMahon. Jane has a lot on her plate. Well, a sandwich. And she seems to be the meat in it. But when we first encounter her, she’s hurling abuse out the window, angered by some dirty bastard pissing in the street. Pissing on her patch. Not for the first time, one surmises. The bloke, who may have just been caught short, for all we know, is copping the blame for her collective adverse experience with the male gender, it seems. She has a problem with people (by whom, if her account is anything to go by, she’s surrounded) who are ‘deeply, deeply superficial’. Which is a problem, in this day and age. She doesn’t like anyone pissing on her petunias. Which is a problem, in this day and age. She’s also rather envious of people she finds, late at night, or very early in the morning, cavorting in the stairwell, or elsewhere. Who needs to be reminded of what they’re missing? Beyond this, though, this one’s a bit of a ramble.

The Diver is by Alli Sebastian Wolf and performed by Roland Baker, Josipa Draisma, Eloise Snape & Richard Cox; a diver and three communicative fish. The diver, in antique garb, might have walked straight out of a Jules Verne novel. The fish are colourfully tropical and, surprisingly, topical in their conversation. Thanks to a lack of economy of scale, needs be we must exercise our imaginations to the fullest. We are, of course, inhabiting a fish tank, in which the diver complains of the responsibility foist on him by dint of his residency there. Why must he be the one to clean the algae up, all the time? I mean, it’s the snails job to eat it. He’s told them as much. Properly staged, this might prove a wondrous work for children, but I had trouble deciphering the significance, if there was any, or relevance, of this piece. Cute, but inconsequential.

Tim Spencer’s Significant Other, performed by Alex Bryant-Smith, as Troy. Troy yanks down the only garment he’s wearing, his boxers. He’s sitting on the throne. Charming. Linguistically, the script as a certain something, ‘though I’m not sure quite what. It has a muscular cadence, but is almost utterly inscrutable, as if the playwright is talking to himself, with no regard for an audience. All in all, it’s as painful as Troy’s intestinal cramps, yielding no truth or insight. At least not any I could understand. Jesus. Stalin. Levitation. Masturbation. And a sink with a face. Oi weh! Yes, we all know the cognitive diarrhoea that can take hold when one is doubled-up, after a heavy session, feeling like death may be imminent. We get that. And we get that Troy is alone. And troubled by more than tummyache. These aren’t revelations and the writing doesn’t exactly engender empathy. My diagnosis would be dramatic constipation, I’m afraid. Take two dramaturges and call me in the morning. Better yet, don’t call me. I’ll call you. I don’t even get how the title fits. Call me obtuse.

Me, We is Wayne Blair’s contribution, performed by Richard Cox. This is a far better vehicle for Cox than The Diver. Ironically, in form it’s not a million miles from Spencers not so significant other, but it manages to engage more, by way of its character’s reflections and reminiscences. It doesn’t try as hard and succeeds more. (See, theatre isn’t any fairer than life.) It’s a simple, unaffected backtrack, as a mind in neutral wanders, fondly, to into the wilderness of past life: former jobs, friends, favourite songs and loves. There’s the gently amusing, such as when our hero harks back to his stint in a video store, when he ignored dvds, as he figured they’d never take off. There’s almost tear-jerking poignancy, as he relates torrid memories of making love with the one. He still misses her. He goes to training and sweats buckets in the ring, moving with the precision of a not very good boxer. A lovely line, followed by others. Blair makes the vernacular his slave and, having this gift, through the talented medium of Cox, he’s able to play on our heartstrings as with the dexterity of an accomplished harpist, while relating something so familiar we can almost touch it. It certainly touches us. It’s the hero playlet.

Ikea (Part 2) tends to vindicate Annie’s mother’s concerns: she may or may not be spiralling into an ignominiously mad catwoman state-of-mind. On the plus side, she seems to have located all the screws for her bookshelf; as we all know, a miracle, where Ikea’s concerned. But then the damn phone rings. Guess who. Her conversation highlights another aspect of flying solo: getting older. The retirement village or nursing home is always a tough call, but what happens when we start storing our keys in the fridge and calling the orange tree Ralph? In discussing her grandmother’s plight with her mother she feels the unbearable weight of an anticipatory grief we’ll probably all know, sooner or later, if we haven’t known it already. This is solid stuff.

Grace De Morgan wrote The Intruder, bringing together Leofric Kingsford-Smith and Eloise Snape. Albert seems to be an ordered, if not downright pernickety individual, so he can be rather fazed by disruptions to his routine, one imagines, let alone uninvited guests. In this case, said company is a pigeon. After trying to talk it down, or out, he does about the only thing he thinks he can do. He dials 000. He gets short shrift. As stressed as he is, he’s clearly unfit for work, so phones in his absence. He threatens the bird with a breadknife, but the feathered fiend seems unmoved. He throws things at it, making much clatter, before sinking to his knees in sobbing defeat. His neighbour, Annie, has heard the ruckus and, concerned, comes calling. Sweetly, acquaintance turns quickly to both seeking a deeper connection. They are fast friends, vowing to check in on each other every so often. The oblique tragedy is it took a crisis, of sorts, to bring them together. But isn’t this so often the case?

The Sirens and The Stars is another short piece by Carson, featuring Amanda Stephens Lee, as Rose, and Roland Baker, as Andy, her son. Andy has struck out on his own. His place isn’t much, but it’s home. Now. Rose has come to visit and is horrified by the squalid space Andy has found. Lying on the couch, he sees the stars (somehow), but she only hears the sirens, sees the filth and smells the stench. It’s a classic half empty, half full scenario; an exemplar of cognitive dissonance. There’s some dark, undisclosed familial secret lurking, lingering, hovering here. Rose tries the backstop maternal strategy to lure Andy from his den of iniquity, back home. But her guilt trip comes with an extra loading: Andy’s father is going, going, almost gone, from lung cancer. Forgiveness needs to insinuate itself into the relationship between father and son, but will Andy forgive, or even feign forgiveness? But Carson’s cliffhanger, while apparently having all the right ingredients, somehow fails to engage the emotional starter-motor.

Alli Sebastian-Wolf’s Lighthouse Keeper, with Paul Armstrong, Richard Cox and a talking cat, is lit to powerful effect by Sian James Holland and Armstrong gives, at least of those I’ve seen or recall (I’ve documented a number of duds), his very best performance to date, as the light slowly fades on his life, which is ending of his own volition. But it’s a graceful departure; the keeper’s singular, parting anxiety the welfare of his moggie, this expressed via audible responses from the mice-muncher which, true to form, reflect self-interest above concern for his master. Sebastian-Wolf has zeroed in mindfully on what surely must’ve been one of the loneliest of existences; now, I assume, ostensibly obsolete. It has an old-world atmosphere which is absorbing and a hauntingly poetical disposition, though it seems a little out of place with the overwhelmingly contemporary explorations of the pieces that surround it.

Barb is a fifty-something woman, played by Kate Fitzpatrick. (How could to hear her sultry voice again; where’s she been?) We encounter her sleeping. She wakes in fright. She’s surrounded by other, young women, who, we surmise, are disembodied voices, in her head, or dreams. Barb seems to be in the throes of grieving and these voices are her, at different ages and stages of her life. She struggles to reconcile feelings of guilt, remorse and relief. It’s exceptionally well-written and hits coffin nails right on the heard with hard, cold, metallic questions, the kind that rust on, such as ‘can you still be a bad daughter when your mother is dead?’ It’s intriguingly, if quite inscrutably constructed: more impressionistic than narrative, but generally worth an investment of attentiveness.

Director, Gus Supple, is an irrepressible force in independent theatre, a lightning-rod and conduit for the careers of countless others. This is, arguably, her greatest contribution to the Sydney scene and it’s an almost entirely selfless one. In pulling so many disparate strands together, one is likely to have a few that break and whose colours aren’t entirely complementary. But, as with all such projects she’s devised, the whole tends to be greater than the sum of its parts. While the standard of writing is quite variable (Blair and Bates stand head and shoulders above the rest, for mine), that of performance is high. And thematic integrity, sturdy. It’s an heroic undertaking which deserves more than cynicism and lip-service. And what a coup to remind us of one of the great actors still in our midst who should never have been off our radar. Or producers’ radars.

The details: Singled Out played at the Seymour Centre, Sydney, until October 12.

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