Griffin’s ‘Dreams in White’ and Belvoir’s ‘This Heaven’ are both tales of murder and intrigue, although completely different contexts. Whilst both ‘This Heaven’ and ‘Dreams in White’ deal with the guilt of the perpetrators and the carnage left behind, each play asks us to examine the nature of guilt, silence, deception and loss in completely different ways. Both plays also feel like there's something missing in order to fully make me engage in their plight: context.
Context is today's lesson- the importance of making sure your audience understand the nature of the narrative, character and shifts in action, time and place. Although both of these plays have many things to commend them, there is an issue with context.
‘This Heaven’, currently playing at Belvoir in their downstairs theatre is written by Nakkiah Lui and directed by Lee Lewis. Its focus is the fallout after the death in custody of an Aboriginal man, father and husband to a family who are devastated by not only his death but by the failure of the system to find the truth or punish those responsible.
The play dabbles with some powerful moments, from its opening of a chorus of sounds and frustrations from its characters and most notably for the silence from the one character who turns out to be the policeman who is holding onto the truth but cannot reveal it.
Centre stage in this tiny space is an old swing set, designed by Sophie Fletcher and used by the characters to rally, reminisce and rant for all the things that have been denied them, that have given them hope and that ultimately have broken them. As blind son Ducky (Travis Cardona) scales its scaffolding and antagonises the ‘invisible’ enemy, we note how hard every action must be for this family and how often they have had to stumble in the dark to try and find answers from those who hide in the shadows.
This play has a whole lot of heart and the acting is filled with people giving it their all. I can also tell you, from an audience point of view in the context of how intimate and arresting the downstairs theatre can be, when characters are banging that metal frame with a steel bar in the dark, the action is certainly heightened in a ‘theatre-of-cruelty-assault-on-the-senses’ kind of way and there’s a fear that you’re going to be knocked out. It was a powerful moment to feel the intensity of the characters’ plight, particularly as it is building to the climax.
But to me the play stumbled in the dark in the first 30 minutes, just lacking enough clarity to make me think that although these were high stakes for the characters, I was missing some piece of vital information that I needed to feel that too. Of course, I understood the premise, the death in custody, the idea that this family were aggrieved at an injustice of the case, now past its day in court and closed for all but them. I had the literal story but none of the meat that would let me digest it as an audience member on the intricacies of the situation. It’s like seeing the emotion but not what drives it.
It didn’t take away the enjoyment of the show but it did take away the power. For me, that power-play came when Joshua Anderson entered as the policeman, gearing up for the riot and letting the audience in on what precipitated the whole event. He was our backstory and his delivery of it, with regret and empathy, loyalty and fear, gave us the meat we needed to thoroughly engage in the story. Anderson was the highlight of the show for me (in what was a very strong cast I may add) and it made me think, ‘in all this emotion and anger, is the white man’s voice most resonant with me because it represents who I am or is it the choice of the writer, whether that be consciously of sub-consciously to provide the missing link?’
Anderson certainly brought it home and although the rest of the cast should also be commended for the energy and commitment of their own performances and I think Nakkiah Lui has written a great first play. However, the first half needs another draft or working over to hone the material and clarify the characters’ heightened emotions so context is not lost in the tirade. Thirty minutes of sustained anger will set up an impossible struggle to keep your audience invested in the stakes of the narrative advancement and for your director to employ a range of techniques for her cast to use. I will say that Lee Lewis has done a very good job in helping her cast and audience try to connect with this play using the material Lui has supplied.
Griffins’ ‘Dreams in White’, written by Duncan Graham and directed by Tanya Goldberg has a similar issue in regards to context. I’ve always said if I have to do research before the show to clarify the story, there’s probably a flaw in the performance. To me that once again sat in the writing (or perhaps the directing) and was most evident in the multiple playing of characters by the actors that took me a little while to play catch up when there was such a little difference in how they were presented. Normally I take to this like a duck to water, but ‘Dreams in White’ blurred this distinction. For instance, it was hard to tell when Steve Rodgers played any character apart from hapless Gary. They all felt the same. Mandy McElhinney probably made the best fist of transformational acting choices. I don’t need stock costume changes but if I’m thrown into a new scene and set of characters and I have no guide to assist me in taking that journey, I will struggle to understand the coherence of narrative.
But that would be my main criticism of what is a fairly good show. The acting was as solid as you’d expect from veterans like Lucy Bell (Anna Devine) and Andrew McFarlane (Michael Devine), who play husband and wife and where Michael’s double life, that leads to his demise, is revealed throughout the discoveries of the play. There are a couple of moments we feel truly uncomfortable in the play, like when Devine is asking Julia (Bell) about whether she is ‘thinking about other people’ as we sense Devine’s grooming techniques or when daughter Amy (Sara West) is revealing her romance and abuse at the hands of her boyfriend to her father. At other times, I felt I wasn’t particularly invested in the outcomes for the characters and yet still engaged in the show. I think that’s the danger of playing ‘catch-up’, you stop caring after a point if you are still working out whether this is a time shift or a brand new context.
West and McElhinney I thought were also great and when Rodgers was playing Gary, he really hit the mark too. Maybe his issue was costume because it so clearly defined him as Gary, it was very hard to deliver anything else.
I will say designer’s Tessa Negroponte’s set was terrific. The sliding doors and structure of the bespoke home represented the nature of the surface as neat and uncluttered and yet behind the scenes the carnage takes place. I’m so often impressed with how both Griffin and downstairs Belvoir design for these spaces in such a sophisticated and potent way.
I also feel Goldberg's directorial pacing of this play in the smooth flow of action was good and only hindered by character confusion.
There was something to be got out of both of these plays but I wished for more in each case. To have such a strong ensemble working on each performance and yet to feel wavering engagement suggests there is still some way to go in delivering the full life of each play to the audience.
I think you’ll like the plays and there will be moments you will thoroughly enjoy but in both cases, you’ll feel there’s something missing. I’m making the call and saying the it's word of the day- context.