Dramafest 2014 Season 5 reviewed by Richard Hyde

by September 29, 2014

Apologies to Session 4 but you were up against some three decades of tradition when it comes to watching VFL/AFL Grand Finals, a battle you were never going to win. It was a cracking game… for all of ten minutes. Props to Festival Director and Sydney Swans fan Emma Davis for subtly sporting her team’s colours into the evening. At least it wasn’t purple.

To Session 5 and the Goldfields Repertory Club won the toss and elected to perform to the Subiaco end with a good crowd in attendance. They kicked away early with Meg Lefroy and Shaun Fessey starring in I Dream Before I Take The Stand. Lefroy is the victim of a crime; Fessey the defence lawyer who forensically and callously cross-examines her. This was unsettling and powerful but a little frustrating as well. The pattern of questioning immediately intrigued me but kept going along similar lines without any revelation or twists to ratchet up the tension. The repetition started to become a little tedious until finally we get to crux of the matter – a man that said hello to Lefroy’s character as she walked to work through a park had followed her, the rest left unsaid but the implication was clear.

The lawyer’s insistence of knowing every detail including exactly how she was dressed down to what type of underwear made me squirm. I wanted her to show moments of defiance or to fight back as the brutal badgering was unrelenting. Differences in his tact of questioning would have helped with the repetition of so-called facts. This was well performed by both actors and certainly confronting. Simply staged by director Aaron Pendlebury it was a good start to the evening and I loved that it fades out right at the point where she begins to describe the crime. We know what happens next and the unstated nightmare is left to fester in our imagination.

Up next was The Drive, a 10 minute spotlight directed and produced by Clare Talbot and starring Katrina Johnston and Cassee Lazic. Again, thoughts of mortality emerge as one of the recurring themes of this year’s Dramafest. A girl (Johnston) races to find help for ‘Tom’, her vehicle swerving and skidding through the countryside only for him to abandon her as he dies. Lazic narrates the action as (presumably) the girl’s conscience. I particularly liked her intoning the speed of the vehicle as it accelerates and decelerates on this mercy dash. I was a little confused when the two actors directly interacted with each other as I had assumed they were aspects of one and the same character. I liked that device but the overall impact was undercut by having no real idea who Tom was.

The Goldfields Repertory Club kicked further away as halftime approached with the profanity laden and wonderfully performed Mag and Bag. Alana Saint and Karen Gurry were fabulous as two elderly bag ladies who ‘barney’ amongst the clutter and detritus of their lives. The foul-mouthed exchanges were inventive and funny but what was most impressive is that there’s something totally endearing about these two characters that makes us care. There are political references along the way and it was hard to pinpoint an exact time period as we get nods to historical figures from Menzies to Howard, Wran and Fraser. Yes, when the most insulting curse of all is ‘Liberal’ (“I’d rather you call me a c***!”) and delivered by two of life’s unfortunates you know exactly the political sympathies at play. But this never overshadowed the chemistry between Saint and Gurry who relished the verbal and occasional physical stoushes and made excellent use of the space and a wide range of props.

Oftentimes swearing is used merely to be ‘edgy’ or ‘shocking’ but here it was utterly in character and delivered with such style and energy that it was truly a highlight. The only downside was when parts of the dialogue were drowned out by over exuberant use of the Benny Hill theme tune, itself a curious choice for such an identifiably Australian piece. This was a real crowd favourite.

After halftime, producer-director Alison Seiler presented The Perfect Heart written by John de Beaux. This play deals with the weighty issues of religious persecution, illegal organ farming, heart transplants and another of Dramafest’s thematic pillars, the afterlife.  A young girl’s parents take her to China to get a heart transplant, the organ in question forcibly removed from a Falun Gong practitioner. She wakes to meet “John” (her ‘donor’) in that grey limbo between life and death to discover the cost of such an action. This turned out to be very much a message play and while I don’t doubt it seeks to shine a light on the persecution of Falun Gong in China and the heinous practice of systematic organ harvesting it was too heavy-handed in its approach. At times it felt more like a lecture than a piece of dramatic theatre and while clearly heartfelt this meant it was dry and unconvincing.

I needed to see and feel the issues being dealt with not be told about them in what was a recitation of researched facts. We see the girl only after her parents have whisked her away to China and had the operation, awakening in the limbo world. It would have been so much more effective if we had met her beforehand and she had to make a decision about whether to go to China to accept a transplant most likely from a tainted donation process or by refusing, die. Give her real stakes – it’s easy to be principled when nothing is being risked. Then you could have explored the reactions of family, friends and colleagues to whatever decision she made and how they influenced that decision. Make her agonise over it, not merely deal with the ramifications after the deed is taken out of her hands.

Also, a tip when writing dialogue – any time a character starts a line of dialogue with “As you know…” or “Do you remember when…?” they are immediately talking directly to the audience. This kind of writing was rife in the script. If both characters already know the information about to be imparted it is straight exposition and on the nose. Put a red line through every instance of this and work out how to show the audience the information rather than a stand and deliver telling of it.

As always, Adam T Perkins’ adjudicator feedback – or in keeping with today’s loose football metaphor, after match press conference – was informative and entertaining. I am really enjoying his insights into stagecraft and how to enliven scenes by exploring different choices and ‘playing’ with the material at hand.

Reproduced, with permission, from Dramafest – Session 5 (27 September 2014)