When a playwright frames a fictitious story in a current, local, real-world socio-political issue, the stakes are raised for both the presenter and the audience. In the case of Emily Steel’s original play Sepia, the environmentalists are the ones who come out of it with ink on their faces.
The play Sepia’s name is derived from the Latin name of the Giant Australian Cuttlefish, Sepia apama. These animals have developed fame and notoriety in the last two decades for their mass breeding aggregations between Point Lowly and the town of Whyalla in South Australia’s Upper Spencer Gulf. In 2007, plans were announced by BHP Billiton to expand the Olympic Dam mine north of Roxby Downs. To satisfy the mine’s increasing thirst, a desalination plant was decided upon as their future primary water source. The desalination plant’s location, and the return of its waste brine back into the waters off Point Lowly were approved by the South Australian State Government and Australian Federal Government in October of 2011. The play was in development at the time, and that event provides the starting block for the fictitious story of Neil, Emma and Matty.
A little background… the short video below from Naturescope introduces the Giant Australian Cuttlefish and some of their vulnerabilities.
Playwright Steel and director Nescha Jelk establish the audience’s perception of Neil, the play’s central character, before the lights even raise. He sits in his Whyalla home wearing snorkelling gear, in the murky waters of depression after the October Government approvals. Projected video cuttlefish swim by behind him, and when his mouth opens, the portrait of a fool is rapidly coloured.
As the play commences, it is clear that Neil’s passion for protecting the cuttlefish governs his actions. Despite his imposed utility as the ‘fool’, no laugh-out-loud comedy ensues. He is a tragic figure, who has failed threefold: in running a business, keeping his family together, and protecting the cuttlefish from industrial development. Neil is a former Company man, who broke from the fold to invest in the promise of a burgeoning tourism industry in Whyalla. Now he is wallowing in the rotten fruits of his labours.
Presented in RiAus’ unspectacular basement, the play viewed like a draft rather than a finished work. The relationship between the dreamer Neil (Rory Walker) and his conservative wife Emma (Holly Myers) was improbable- devoid of chemistry, and addled with condescension and resentment. Ultimately the pragmatic, conservative voice of Emma resounded as the voice of reason. The one who took a job in accounts, and left Neil and his ideals behind. Was this evidence of the writer’s own prejudice, a representation of her perception of the Australian majority, or was it a creative defence mechanism, an over-compensation against any possible accusation of siding with environmentalists?
Politically, the scope of this work was frustratingly narrow. The writer isolated the desalination plant from the wider impacts of the Olympic Dam mine expansion, and the mining boom which lies beyond it. A single description of the mine becoming ‘the biggest uranium mine in the world’ threatened to open another juicy can of worms, but shied away from the challenge. There was no mention of community action, grass-roots activism or public protest. Whyalla was portrayed true to the Adelaide-centric stereotype, as a BHP company town with a steelworks and a future desalination plant. The State Government’s agenda to heavily industrialise the Point Lowly peninsula with an explosives factory, diesel storage, new refineries and an expanded port facility right through the cuttlefish’s breeding reef was strangely absent. By isolating the issue of the desalination plant and hinging the play on it post-approval, the play creates the impression that we will all have to ‘wait and see’ what happens next. In reality, the desalination plant’s operation is 7-10 years away in BHP Billiton’s timeline, and proposals for Port Bonython expansion and other industrial developments are stacking up around it now. There are clear and present opportunities for public opinion to influence the cuttlefish’s future, and to discourage action by accident or design, is unhelpful to those fighting for their cause.
Dramatically, the play was at times painful to watch. The director failed to induce the ebb and flow of pace and emotional intensity the script desperately required to maintain interest, resulting in performances which ambled along monotonously. Over-acting was another major problem. Despite the furthest extremities of the audience being less than five metres from the players, Neil and Matt’s (Matthew Gregan) performances were large enough to be seen from an upstairs gallery.
Sepia is essentially a domestic drama, with a few factoids, crude stereotypes and a conservative bias thrown in for spice. Yes, it takes a real world issue, but it simplifies it, freezes it in time and cooly skates over the surface. Once upon a time, playwrights represented threats to the establishment, presenting radical, progressive ideas and challenging the status quo. If that is the brand of theatre that you yearn for, you won’t find it in Sepia.
For a more detailed study of the issues touched upon by Sepia, visit Cuttlefish Country.
I’ve always felt that politics and theatre have fantastic potential to create dynamic and enlightening human experiences together. Striking the right balance when designing a production with a multimedia approach and multiple agendas is fraught with danger though, as Windmill‘s latest production, Nyuntu Ngali reminded me last night.
Written and directed by Scott Rankin of Big h’Art, the play presents itself as a post-apocalyptic love story. The central struggle of the two young leads to survive as fugitives in the Pitjantjatjara desert is frequently disturbed by the piece’s polemic, didactic political statements. While Roam and Eve’s choreographed movement is expressive in an abstract way, their characters’ underdeveloped lives and personalities make empathising with them difficult. This leaves the gate open for the soap-box politics to resound, despite the best efforts of the multi-disciplinary ensemble.
Driven from her community for breaking blood-related laws of union, Eve (Anne Golding) begins her journey as a teenager in the late stages of pregnancy. On the run with Roam (Derek Lynch), the two are confronted by a mortifying prospect: to abandon their child to save themselves, or to turn their backs on their community forever and face the future as three.
From her initial impulse to abandon her child, Eve’s character proves difficult to like. She struggles from adolescence into motherhood, while Roam struggles to develop as provider for his new family. Both neglected their elders’ teaching, and the cautionary note here is clear. Their scenario stands as a warning to all of us to reconsider the knowledge that is the most valuable to us. Rankin’s insight into the value of traditional practise, the way of the hunter-gatherer versus that of a society ‘techno mad’ is pertinent, and well-expressed. Employing a gentle combination of human movement and projected video, traditional Pitjantjatjara skills were depicted as fragile, distant memories. Unfortunatley Rankin’s messages were not always expressed with such a sensitive, soft-handed approach.
Using the familiar technique of taking the audience to the future to reflect on the present, Nyuntu Ngali’s setting is a post climate-change world, where the cities are barren and the well-springs of life are now found in the waterholes of the desert country. To the story’s detriment, Rankin’s agenda to criticise and agitate smothers the lovers’ tale progressively as the play unfolds. The powerfully portrayed narrator’s (Trevor Jamieson) voice becomes the dominant one, mocking the habits of youth enveloped in popular culture. The delusional fantasies expressed in the lyrics and sentiments of commercial music are satirised by the whole cast in a jarring musical-dance montage, while our petro-philia- from the love of the cars to derivative petro-chemical products is detailed explicitly by Jamieson on several occasions. A sequence where actors shadow dance to an R’n’B track labours its point, and was almost as painful and heavy-handed as the young leads’ decision to call their child ‘Petrol Head’.
From the naming of their child, (and the frequent repetition of it) the lovers are reduced to becoming props for Rankin’s political projection. While I personally agree with the director’s central argument, that the ‘just do it’ culture of oil-worship is steering us towards apocalypse, the means in which the message is delivered hampers its effect. The story’s tone is inescapably bleak, and such a course threatens to paralyse its already leftward-leaning middle-class, theatre-going audiences and inspire little action.
Accompanying the lovers verbal and physical narrative were several multimedia elements. While the performed music of Beth Sometimes frequently sapped energy from the performances with its slow tempo and laconic style, the projected live sand-painting of an uncredited indigenous performer was consistently beautiful. Attention was never actively drawn to this element though, while neighbouring video art, mostly unremarkable, was projected on a much grander scale. Cryptic unfolding hinged boxes provided the actors with versatile, collapsible and at times symbolic props, but also created another disparate element in an already dysfunctional world.
While the production design was warm and gentle in general, this rubbed firmly up against the prevailing themes, actions and tone of the central story. I wanted to empathise with Eve and Roam but struggled to connect with the undernourished characters, and was denied any skerrick of hope for humanity at the play’s end. Perhaps ramping up the experience’s intensity to provide the dynamic thrust of a purgative, cathartic experience would have resolved this story more effectively? Despite its good intentions and performances, Nyuntu Ngali left me out in the cold.