Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Theatre: Borderline

Written and performed by Evelyn Snook

Music by B Gosper

Directed by Kylie Bywaters

Design and AV by Clare Testoni

Lighting designer Jasmine Lifford

Blue Room until July 31, 2021


When an artist like Evelyn Snook stands alone on a stage and tells us the whys and wherefores of their life, criticism is largely an arid exercise, or at least one that operates on the margins of the drama.

A person’s life is, after all, their own, and it’s not for us to pass judgment on it, or even its worth as performance.

That said, Snook is an engaging and accurate performer who is able to convincingly and movingly reconstruct their battle with Borderline Personality Disorder, the insidious and potentially dangerous condition that affects perhaps one in fifty people, particularly teenage and young adult women.

Its symptoms – among them fear of abandonment, rapid changes in self-image and self-identity, wild mood swings, risky behavior and self-harm – make life and relationships extremely challenging. 

Tragically, the risk of suicide is ever-present (studies suggest up to 10% of people suffering from BSD take their own life).

It’s admirable that Snook can take us through the toughest battles they have fought with candour, positivity and humour. The place they have reached now is clearly precious and liberating to them, and we can do nothing but share their joy.

The other pleasure of Borderline is the quality of the production the director Kylie Bywater and producer Kailyn Crabbe have built around Snook. The involvement of the award-winning shadow puppeteer and theatre maker Clare Testoni is crucial to the productions success. The show looks lovely, and the subtle, unobtrusive AV elements add immeasurably to it.

The revelation of Borderline is its musician, B Gosper. They sit quietly in a corner, with just a small smile and a guitar, and the songs they sing that punctuate the performance are sweet, gentle and deeply moving.

I would gladly listen to to the songs alone; as part of this extremely moving and uplifting show, they are a small miracle. As is Borderline.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Theatre: York

by Chris Isaacs and Ian Michael

Black Swan State Theatre Company

Directed by Clare Watson and Ian Wilkes

Designed by Zoe Atkinson

Composer and sound designer Dr Clint Bracknell

Lighting designer Lucy Birkenshaw

Performed by Shakira Clanton, Isaac Diamond, Ben Mortley, Benjamin and Jacob Narkle (alternating), Sophie Quin, Maitland Schnaars, Alison van Reeken and Elise Wilson

Heath Ledger Theatre until August 1, 2021


Maitland Schnaars
Even without its qualities (there are many), Chris Isaac and Ian Michael’s York is among the most significant works to come to the State Theatre Centre stage over its first decade. 

It’s the product of a web of training and experience, inspiration and experience, knowledge and sheer talent from sources as wide as WAAPA, the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company and the Blue Room, The Last Great Hunt and others of our independent companies, the WA Youth Theatre Company and Black Swan – both at its genesis and in its current status as the State Theatre Company.

What Michael and Isaacs have done is take a location (the barely-disguised old York hospital and its site) and peeled back its history from the present to the early days of European settlement.

That, of course, is only a wafer-thin slice of this place; before then, stretching back tens of thousands of years, it was the country of the Ballardong Noongar people, a fertile, fecund land of bush and river flats, providing everything its inhabitants needed to live full, spiritually-charged and welcoming lives.

It underpins the hard story Isaacs and Michael tell – it’s that lost life that is the unquiet ghost that drifts through the trees like smoke from spectral campfires and rattles the windows of the old hospital with grievous memories.

The other unspoken but crystal-clear message of York is that, while the near-destruction of the lives and culture of this continent’s First Peoples is the stark and terrible result of often brutal and inhumane European colonization, no-one has been left undamaged by it. The colonial European world that was built here carries a persistent, angry flaw at its heart, an original sin that even 250 years hasn’t erased, making victims of its own as well as the “other”.

In York, we meet those victims, a slaughtered settler family and the Ballardong men falsely accused of their murder, a desperate family hoping to save the life of their boy and the stern matron who tries to help them, a young man driven mad by Europe’s wars and a committed Aboriginal lawyer driven crazy by an indifferent legal system stacked against her clients in the present day.

Before we meet them, though, we’re taken on a wild, zany ride through the old building, so out of character with both our expectations and what is to follow that it defies conventional theatrical logic.

It’s a classic horror-com, complete with things that go bang in the night, shrieking apparitions, Rooms That Must Not Be Entered, a ditzy neighbor who’ll only come to the house armed with a cricket bat, and then only during daylight hours.

In the middle of this mayhem comes a little scout troupe (Isaac Diamond, Ben Mortley, Jacob Narkle, Sophie Quinn and Elise Wilson) and their two Akelas (Jo Morris and Shakira Clanton) on a Foundation Day long weekend camp in 1985.

Young Michael (Mortley) relates a lurid story of a cannibal ghost told him by the old building’s janitor (Maitland Schnaars); a young Indigenous boy, Lewis (Narkle), conjurs up ghoulish monsters from his tradition. Blood streams from bannisters, ghostly hands encircle young necks –  it’s the whole shebang.

The whole affair is gleefully orchestrated by its directors Clare Watson and Ian Wilkes, the designer Zoe Atkinson (that set of hers is ALIVE!) and lighting and sound designers Lucy Birkenshaw and Clint Bracknell.

(I should say the fun and games were greatly enlivened by a hyperactive first night audience who found the whole thing genuinely hilarious and terrifying. Bless them – I wish every opening night mob were half as entertaining!).

There are intimations of the real-life horrors to come in the first act, although they might have been more direct and extended in the interests of the balance of the enterprise.

The mood of the first act is swept away after interval by the abject figure of a young man (Diamond), recently returned from the horrors of the WWI trenches, rocking in a chair, his mind in torment, his waking nightmares too hard for the matron, Roslyn Bell (Alison van Reeken) to relieve.

Another nightmare comes to the hospital – a young boy gravely ill with influenza (Narkle) from one of Chief Protector of Aborigines Neville’s Native Reserves, and his distraught parents (Clanton and Schnaars).

Duty and humanity overcome the matron’s fear and misgivings, and she treats the young boy despite the regulations forbidding it; her transgression is discovered, the price she pays is swift and brutal.

Finally, in 1839, a half-century before the hospital was built, a little family, Elijah and Sarah Cook and their infant daughter settled the same land. Sarah struck up friendships with the local Ballardong people, giving them water from the well, greeting their families as they passed through.

When the Cook’s homestead was razed to the ground, the bodies of Sarah and her child in the ruins, Inspector of Native Police Drummond fixed, by mere rumour and supposition (and despite any evidence to the contrary), on the guilt of two Noongar men, Doodjeep and Barrabong, who were hunted down, found guilty in a show trial in 1840 and hung in chains at the site of the crime as a “severe example” to the local Indigenous population.

This terrible story is told by the cast as a chorus front of stage, before York ends as it begins, with a married couple (Clanton and van Reeken) settling into the old building they plan to make their home.

And its past is theirs, to haunt them too.

There’s no denying the power of these stories, each based on fact, even if the structure of the play, and the changing moods and performance styles used to tell them can sit uncomfortably at times.

The younger actors, Jacob Narkle (he alternates with his brother Benjamin), Quinn, Wilson (whose intensity is weapons grade) and Isaacs are assured and convincing, and Mortley and Clanton bring poise and experience to their various roles. It’s a delight to see van Reeken and Morris, two of our very finest actors, working together in extended scenes.

Above all, York is a major career achievement for Maitland Schnaars. His presence, and his great, sombre, soul, fills the theatre when he conjures up the wronged ghosts of generations, while his comic touch in a couple of smaller roles is exquisite.

Schnaars has become an exceptional actor, and it’s a privilege to see him in a work that clearly means a great deal to him

As it should to us.