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The Drowned World

The Drowned World by Gary Owen (Darlinghurst Theatre Company and SMUG Theatre, directed by Lee Lewis) starts off with a five minute monologue about an isolated man's desire to find a woman, an angel, to save him. It's not an uncommon theatrical device and it's quite effective. Slava Orel has a Jacques Brel-like look and somewhat quirky presentation perhaps not ideally suited to a dystopian drama, but certainly they lend a distinctive energy to the cast which otherwise would have been populated with four dour, deadly serious actors.

The problem starts when Orel's monologue is followed up by another, and another, and another. And even though the three subsequent speeches interrupt and intersect each other, they almost never interact. The result is that the first 20 minutes of this 90 minute play contains perhaps three lines of anything even approaching dialogue, and then only characters' responses to a verbalised sound effect: "Knock knock!". The speeches contain narrated actions and a hint of the backstory and milieu - but in the end they just blur into a meaningless wall of sound.

In fact, I'd estimate that only about 15 of the 90 minutes consists of character interacting with each other. Obviously a very deliberate choice by Owen. But it's telling that it's almost always only during these sequences that the stage comes alive with modest frisson. The minimalist direction - minimal sets, minimal props, minimal movement (the first two I imagine dictated by minimal budget) - doesn't help generate excitement or tension either.

There are a couple of sequences late in the piece where narrated action works - when Orel's citizen, Darren, describes an act of killing or Rebecca Smee's fugitive Tara mathematically recounts an act of sex; but by then the overuse of the device has sapped it of its full potential power. (Granted, in the latter instance highlighting Smee on a blackened stage distinguishes this speech from all the others.)

The performances are fine enough - with perhaps John Sheedy's fellow fugitive Julian coming off worst (he pushed too hard) and the two women, Smee and Wendy Strehlow's police agent Kelly in fine form. Smee (who also co-produced) in particular has an evocative delivery well suited to the material.

But the performances can't carry the material and it's the writing that lets this play down. The flyer notes refer to a dystopian future where "only the ugly are deemed citizens and the radiantly beautiful are outcasts [...] hunted down by death squads" and quotes reviews which describe the play as "an intriguing apocalyptic vision of a society obsessed with the skin"... but I never got more than a hint of this theme. The shortening of Julian's name to "Ju" has obvious resonances... but to what point other than linking the fictional and real persecuted groups? The characters are frustratingly elliptic about the distinction between the citizens and the non-citizens (to the point where I expected a surprise ending which never comes). Perhaps this obliqueness is because the basic premise is absurd - and I say this as someone who loves SF and comic books, domains no strangers to absurd premises.

Ultimately I can't view The Drowned World as anything more than an actors' exercise in performance and a playwright's exercise in form. As the former it was a nice show piece for three of the four cast members, as the latter it - for my money - failed.

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on May 6, 2005 9:54 PM.

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