By Tom Holloway
Directed by Sam Strong
With Erin Dewar, Sarah Sutherland & David Whiteley
Set by Peter Mumford
Lighting by Danny Pettingill
GREEN ROOM AWARDS: Best New Australian Play: Tom Holloway
GREEN ROOM NOMINATIONS: Best Production, Best Ensemble, Best Set Design, Best Lighting Design
Red Sky Morning (Aug 27 – Sept 27, 2008)
Alison Croggan, Theatre Notes (13/09/08)
I have often theorised, over various beverages (coffee, whiskey, absinthe) that, while Melbourne is an exciting place to be if you like going to the theatre, with some brilliant theatrical minds and bodies, our theatre suffers from one debilitating weakness: its writing. Waxing lyrical, I’d suggest that this might have something to do with an inward-looking, parochial literary culture. Or alternatively, perhaps it’s linked to a conviction I’ve encountered now and then among theatre artists and, sometimes, critics that literature and theatre are activities that are not only mutually exclusive, but naturally opposed.
Writers can react in defence by turning into enormous intellectual snobs or, alternatively, dump the idea of literature altogether as an unnecessary affectation.
There’s often been a broad streak of anti-intellectualism in Australian theatre, that can sideline literary art as a secondary, perhaps optional, part of the theatre. Actors might train for years to discipline their voices and bodies but, hey, any fool with a keyboard can write. The other response is for playwrights to become the sterile kings of an untouchable domain, a la the Edward Albee school of theatre. (There’s that joke: how many playwrights does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: none. No changes!)
By the time I’ve reached this point, I usually have to be scraped off the floor and gently pushed home before I start dribbling. Or worse, before I begin to expound my ideas about what writing can be in the theatre, which is good for another three hours. But all this is a long-winded way of signalling that I think there is, in fact, a rich loam of theatre writing in Australia, which, despite the production of exciting playwrights like Lally Katz or Ross Mueller, remains mostly unploughed. Judging the RE Ross Trust Play Awards this year, I read a number of adventurous and intelligent texts that, above all, were clearly written for the theatre, as opposed to being transposed novels or bad attempts at poetry.
This is at once encouraging and challenging. Because if there are all these writers making interesting plays, how can our theatre culture support them? The talent out there far exceeds what our mainstream theatres, even with the best of intentions, can produce. I began to wonder if Melbourne needs a theatre specifically for writers, a theatre which exploits our sophisticated theatrical practice to realise the possibilities of this new work.
Or perhaps there’s Red Stitch. (I realise this is a cue for other independent theatres to clamour that they, too, put on new writing: yes, yes, yes. And I’m not ignoring La Mama or Hoy Polloy or any others. But certainly, there’s Red Stitch). Tom Holloway’s Red Sky Morning is the first product of Red Stitch Writers, a system of in-house play development started last year. This is a new step in Red Stitch’s history, which since 2001 has concentrated on picking up and producing the overseas work that escapes the notice of the MTC, and it demonstrates that there’s a world of difference between putting on a play, however well, and making theatre.
In choosing to produce Holloway’s play, Red Stitch made a courageous bet. And it’s paid off. Red Sky Morning is exciting work, which, as good theatre writing should, attempts to rethink the possibilities of theatre. And, crucially, the commitment of the director, performers and designers to realising this play shines through this production.
Tom Holloway has written what might be called a spoken oratorio, a poem for three voices that, like a piece of music, weaves through counterpoint and harmony and tonal collisions. Holloway exploits the patterns of ordinary speech, its repetitions and elisions and fractures, with consummate skill. There is, despite the year-long development, a suspicion now and then of over-writing, a mere whisper of a few words too many, but it’s a solid and artfully worked script with a powerful emotional engine.
It consists of three internal monologues that follow the course of 24 hours in the life of a rural family, a Man (David Whiteley), a Woman (Sarah Sutherland) and a Girl (Erin Dewar). Each monologue is autonomous, touching the others not through dialogue, but through a complex pattern of echoes and repetitions. It’s a device which reinforces not only the mutual isolation of each character but, poignantly, their unmet yearning to connect.
They are at first glance an “ordinary” family living an unremarkable life somewhere in country Australia. It’s a familiar landscape to anyone who has lived in a country town. The Man is a shopkeeper, his wife does housewifely duties, and their daughter is a schoolgirl whose major preoccupation is her crush on her schoolteacher. But, as Holloway begins to excavate their inner lives, it becomes clear that tragedy – as Chekhov understood profoundly – is not only the provenance of the large gesture. It exists in the smallest details of ordinary life: in the caress misunderstood, the moment missed, the dream unshared, despair unsaid and unheard.
In fact, Red Sky Morning is a play in which, quite literally, nothing happens, which is perhaps one of the hardest things to achieve successfully on stage. It begins with a missed moment of passion between the couple, when the Woman farts luxuriously in the bedroom, and their mutual embarrassment creates an impassable wall beyond which neither are able to reach, despite their longing for each other.
The Man goes to work, the Girl goes to school, the Woman waits for them to leave the house so she can begin drinking. Each moment of violent rebellion against the loneliness and tedium of their lives splutters out into impotent fantasy; the only character who can still express her rage is the Girl, and we suspect that she, too, will learn to push down her anger and despair, hiding it underneath the deadening normality of domestic routine.
The beast which haunts this family is represented by the recurring figure of a hallucinatory dog (like Les Murray’s black dog, which he used, after Churchill, to describe his own black depressions). The Man is deeply, suicidally depressed, a weight which perhaps has sparked his wife’s alcoholism. This profound dysfunction makes their daughter long for a “proper” family, a family whose weaknesses don’t expose her to shame and insecurity and finally, terrible fear.
Director Sam Strong gives this complex, delicate play a production which is remarkable for its precision – very necessary, given the demands of the text – and its troubling, erotically charged darkness. Peter Mumford’s design, moodily lit by Danny Pettingill, is a stylised Australian house floored with red earth, its walls defined by venetian blinds that can be snapped open and shut. Like the text, the design blurs the distinction between inside and outside, the hidden and the revealed.
The performances all rise to the challenges of the writing. Whiteley is almost the cliche of the decent, inarticulate country bloke, to the point where he is occasionally outshone by the other two actors (this might account for the odd moment of over-direction in his performance). Sutherland and Dewar give committed, focused performances, wringing out of the text its painfulness, violence and comedy.
If ever you need evidence that a production’s process is reflected in what happens on stage, this is it. It certainly justifies Red Stitch’s investment in Holloway, who is clearly a talent to watch. And it makes an intense, deeply absorbing hour in the theatre, a production that patiently accumulates power towards its devastating end.
Picture: Gemma Higgins-Sears. Sarah Sutherland, David Whiteley, Erin Dewar in Red Sky Morning by Tom Holloway.
John Bailey, The Sunday Age (21/09/08)
I haven’t seen every performance staged in 2008 but after racking up more than 100 I’m willing to nominate Red Stitch’s latest as Play of the Year. There’s no prize, but you should get along to see it. It’s the first piece presented as part of the company’s new writer’s program and the collaborative development has resulted in a work that succeeds on every level. Tom Holloway’s script is tight – hilarious and frequently heart-rending – and performances from David Whiteley, Sarah Sutherland and Erin Dear are pitch-perfect. They play a couple and their teenage daughter during a long, isolated day, and while the piece begins with the tender comedy of simple misunderstandings, an arresting portrait of deep depression, denial and helpless complicity rapidly emerges. Through a slow unfolding, the audience is drawn in to the despair of these utterly believable lives – unable to communicate with one another but drowning in their own thoughts. The recussing image of the black dog is the only aspect that yields to the obvious; in every other way this is a complex, urgent production that deserves to live on.
Chris Boyd, Herald Sun (15/09/08)
If ever the State Government decides Melbourne needs a full-time ensemble of actors to rival the Sydney Theatre Company’s Actors Company, it has a ready-made in Red Stitch. It’s an efficient and highly professional company. Prolific, too, without sacrificing quality. But money is tight.
Red Stitch fills up its little theatre at the eastern end of St Kilda for weeks at a time. But most of Melbourne still doesn’t know what it’s missing.
The company’s latest venture – called Red Stitch Writers – is to develop new plays. (Local plays haven’t been much of a priority for Red Stitch so far.) This one, Red Sky Morning, is the product of a year of readings, workshops and rewrites. And it shows. It hits the stage sprinting. It’s fully formed, impressively set and finely tuned.
It’s a modest yarn about a day in the life of a family: store manager father, boozy mother and shy teen daughter. They’re loving, but they’re deeply and tragically bottled up. Heartbreakingly inarticulate.
What they can’t say to one another they think aloud to us: their idle thoughts, their secrets, their fears, their black dog depressions. Sometimes all three chatter at once (the script is written in columns), so the director has to conduct the play like a score for three voices.
Sam Strong (who directed Shedding, brilliantly, at La Mama earlier this year) does a fine job keeping it all comprehensible. But, all due respect to Strong, with actors of the calibre of David Whiteley, Sarah Sutherland and Erin Dewar, a drover’s dog could have steered this one home. All three are chameleons. And all three are at their brilliant best.
The combination of lighting (Danny Pettingill) and set (Peter Mumford) is another highlight.
Michael Magnusson, On Stage and Walls (31/08/09)
Red Stitch Theatre’s new initiative of presenting work by local writers gets underway with a piece that is sheer virtuosity as text as well as performance. The story is of a day in the frustrating lives of a family whose channels of communication have broken down through an inability to name, let alone do anything, about the wife/mother’s alcoholism.
Peter Mumford’s set brilliantly locates the small town locale in a space with red dirt floor, laminex table, corrugated iron sheet across the back and, on three sides, venetian blinds. Throughout the play we peer into the lives of the three characters, father, mother and daughter through the venetians.
David Whiteley, Sarah Sutherland and Erin Dewar. Photography by Gemma Higgins-Sears.
Tom Holloway’s masterful script takes us one step further, into their very minds. Unable to confront the woman’s addiction all three no longer talk to one another. Instead of conventional dialogue, the actors speak their characters inner thoughts. These interior monologues, unheard by the other characters, propel the action toward a near fatal conclusion.
Unlike spoken words, thoughts can process many physical and emotional sensations are once and each monologue is a complex of sensations which often run parallel to each other and occasionally overlap, one word intruding from one monologue into another, like the baton in relay race, handed seamlessly from one to another, the family obviously attuned to each other’s fears and anxieties but not to speak.
Holloway’s text, as the programme note explains, was developed over many months and has attained a remarkable precision and clarity. In an early scene, where the family are waking at the start of the day, the juxtaposition of states of dreaming and waking are Joycian. In a similarly Joycian way Holloway’s internal dialogues examine sexual fantasies, an inopportune fart, the onslaught of a pimple or processing the feel of one’s own body in howlingly funny and obsessive detail. With the same clinical precision he describes a mind talking itself into committing suicide (the original title was to have been Love My Black Dog, ‘Black Dog’ referring to Winston Churchill’s nickname for his lifelong depressive episodes which make the repeated sightings in the play of a mysterious and threatening dog all the more potent). Holloway employs the device of comedy giving way quickly to deep drama as well as he employs words. The three actors realise this rich and multi-faceted text, coinciding the words they speak together or apart, as well as the author has written them. Whiteley, Sutherland and Dewar miraculously never miss a beat as though they were expert singers guided by an invisible conductor in singing a great and tragic madrigal. Like the most complex of Beckett’s writings in combining physical, psychological and spiritual states, Red Sky Morning is a remarkable theatrical experience.
* Strange Interlude was Eugene O’Neill’s most experimental play. In it he introduced internal monologues which were spoken by a character but which were unheard by other characters.