Written by Joe Lui and the cast
Directed by Joe Lui
Designed by Sara Chirichilli
Featuring Paul Grabovac, Ella Hetherington and Moana Lutton
Blue Room Theatre
7 – 25 August, 2011Life as a theatre professional in this town is tough. You’ve got to be adaptable to survive.
The best survivor I know is Joe Lui, the creator, co-writer and composer, director and lighting designer of the The Book of Death at the Blue Room. Even more impressive than his skills and work ethic is that he is always prepared to challenge and confront, often quite brutally.
He’s also a natural collaborator, and he’s gathered some fine and brave artists for this show. Together, they’ve produced a work that, while often uncomfortable and elusive, is constantly thought provoking and committed.
As the title suggests, it’s about death. Death of the body and the mind, the death of love, the fear of sterility, of loss of beauty and purpose. It’s told in a series of increasingly disintegrating scenes between a young couple (Ella Hetherington and Paul Grabovac), underpinned by a song cycle by Moana Lutton and Lui, performed by Lutton.
Lutton gives an allergic, asphyxiated performance, halting regularly to suck desperately on a mask. It strains the atmosphere and exposes the nerves. It’s beautiful, and sad.
Sara Chirichilli’s eloquent set is a blood-red stage within the stage, fitted between dark, striped wings like a heart exposed between a separated ribcage in an autopsy.
The scenes between Hetherington and Grabovac as their relationship founders are raw enough; we see the turf wars over the value of work and commitment, the explosions of rage over domestic minutia – whether the lettuce was washed, which plates to use. The mannered sex. I love you. I love you too.
But when Hetherington and Grabovac stand naked (you have been duly warned), as themselves, and matter-of-factly tell us their most intimate secrets, their worst fears, the exposure Lui constructs as a theatrical device becomes something more real and unsettling.
Hetherington, one of the best of our young actors, has done some striking work in children’s theatre this year – she is just as impressive in this, very adult, work. Grabovac is a tricky actor to empathise with, but this gives his performance its courage and authenticity.
This is a hard piece, and an uneven one. The songs are difficult, the text circular and reductive, some of the symbolism, especially the masks the cast often wears, opaque and intrusive.
There’s little pleasure to be had in The Book of Death but, like Joe Lui himself, there’s much to admire and respect.