‘Project Xan’ reviewed by Gordon the Optom

by November 10, 2016

‘Project Xan’ is a 70-minute, no punches pulled, adult documentary; a joint PICA and Jedda Production, supervised by Shane Colquhoun. This World Premiere has been scripted by Award-winning WA playwright, Hellie Turner. Four years ago, whilst staying in a Sydney hotel, Hellie was confronted with a middle-aged woman reliving, on national TV, the horrific events of a single night 35 years earlier, that was to deprive her of a normal, happy childhood.

These ‘must-see’ performances are at 7.30 nightly, in the PICA Performance Space at 51 James Street, Northbridge. The season runs until Saturday 19th November. There is a matinée on Wednesday 16th November at 11.00 am, and another on Sunday 19th at 1.00 pm.

 

The time oscillates between 1981 and the present day. The scene is a Queensland courtroom, a hospital and a skating rink. The design consultant, Lawrie Cullen-Tait and her coordinator, Tessa Darcey wisely decided on minimal distracting scenery, choosing instead to have several, well-chosen props. A circle painted in the centre of the floor represents the roller skating rink. Stage managed by Isabella Strada.

Onto the back wall was projected Nancy Jones’ AV design (Blue Moon Film and Video), subtly depicting young Xan as she overlooked the local boys discussing their sexual desires and exploits, on the dark night that changed her life forever. There were many women describing how their hymen changed.

The music is by respected WA composer, Ash Gibson Greig. The tempo was symbolic of a fast beating heart. His dramatic soundscape was often loud and discordant confirming the instability of the situation.

In a production like this, it is important that the lighting should be punchy and dramatic; Chris Donnelly captured the mood perfectly. Karen Cook smoothly controlled both the sound and lighting.

 

      As we enter the theatre, a 12-year old girl, Xan (Daisy Coyle) is sitting at the side of a skating rink, putting on her roller skates. She meets a girl from school that she knows slightly, who asks Xan to accompany her at a boys’ party. At the revelry, the boys ply her with alcohol.

       Next, we see a couple of youths discussing the girls, and using dozens of expressions that now make me cringe in horror. 

     We flash forward to Xan Fraser (herself) as an adult, explaining how as an innocent and gullible child she was sucked into a horrendous situation.

      In a disturbing Court scene – taken from actual transcripts and police records – the audience gasp as the male chauvinism of the lawyers and even the judge is exposed. The barrister points out how this naïve child, not even a teenager, was blatantly leading the boys on. However, unlike today’s young teenagers with Internet porn access, Xan had little knowledge of male anatomy, or even a basic awareness of her own sexuality. In the courtroom, the two lawyers (Siobhan Dow-Hall, Marko Jovanovic) presented their cases on the gang rape, but for the warped judge (Nick Maclaine), the case against slut Xan was clear. The verdict he gave was to stun the already riveted, silent audience.

 

With such a delicate and tragic subject, there could be no room for half-hearted acting, and so Hellie has chosen a magnificent team, many of whom have been nominated for awards – including Equities. The power of their performances was heart stopping. With the brief, hard-hitting cameos swinging smoothly over the 35 years, the pace increased most effectively.

In a similar genre to the internationally famous ‘Laramie Project’, the playwright of ‘Project Xan’ has given us a perfect blend of courtroom action, vox-pop, malevolent rumours, facts, bigotry, local rejection and pure brutality.

Playwright Hellie Turner wrote to Xan asking if she could write a play about her trauma and her fight back to normality. Naturally, Xan was worried would she be further humiliated or exploited, and so she did not reply straightway. Gradually, she learnt of Hellie’s genuine empathy, discovering that she is one of the few writers in Australia capable of writing on such a tragic and delicate topic. There is a fine line between presenting the full drama with empathy, and going over the top with sensationalism and sycophantic sympathy. Or even worse, trying to make the script gratuitously scandalous and seedy. Hellie has sensitively presented the source of Xan’s shame, self-blame and the truth behind why the event happened.

Next, could Hellie get Xan to act ‘herself’ in such a demanding play, with the distinct possibility of causing the victim to regress and become distressed? Xan’s family are keen Community Theatre fans, and so she generously agreed. A personal thank you Xan, you made all of the difference to the play. Filled with self-blame, and never having received any counselling or moral support, Xan – who has proved herself a thousand times over with her now successful life – wanted to take part in this a cathartic experience.

Often, men who wear ‘fun’ T-shirts do not really appreciate the upset that some printed mottos can cause. When loss of the rapist’s control due excessive drinking, or the brevity of the rape are quoted in Court as a defence lines, then one has to wonder at the depths of ignorance.

30 years after the events shown, unbelievably Middle East women are still be stoned to death for ‘allowing’ men to rape them. Even the judge, in this ‘civilised’ country, blamed 12 year old Xan for being too inviting – injustice rather than civil justice. When a President seems to be decades behind in his attitude to women, and is still cheered by the masses for recommending ‘grab a pussy’, the world is still worryingly unchanged.

Director Hellie Turner, with Dramaturg by Dr David Williams, have presented this gripping, disturbing and beautifully conceived play; showing today’s girls, who may find themselves in a similar set of circumstances, that there is a sympathetic outlet for their feelings, to have pride in themselves, not to suffer self-blame but to become empowered and to warn others.

As the play powerfully states, the only thing worse than change is the status quo. Sadly, one wonders how far things have improved over the decades – possibly little.

An amazing piece of writing immaculately presented. Many congratulations to all.