By Anthony Neilson
Directed by Ross Ganf
With Laura Gordon, Kat Stewart, David Whiteley, Ross Ditcham & Peter Stratford
Year of the Family (May 5 – 30, 2004) –Thuy On, The Australian 10/05/04
Small-to-medium companies are “the major source of new and innovative Australian theatre” according to a discussion paper compiled for the Australia Council’s 2003 analysis of trienially funded theatre companies.
“Without increased funding for the creation of new work, there will be a fall in the number of productions and/or quality of work,” the paper also claims. “A spiral of decline may commence.”
Fortunately Red Stitch Actors Theatre and other small independent companies offset such dire predictions.
Receiving no government funding at all, the Red Stitch ensemble has somehow managed to survive by sheer determination and a gutsy work ethic.
The paucity of costume and setting budget is irrelevant, as it’s the high-level performance skills of the young cast that brand the company with such distinction.
Originally conceived by 29-year-old Vincent Miller in 2002, Red Stitch fills the gap between state-sponsored theatre and fringe productions.
As Melbourne’s only repertory actors theatre company (with a dozen names on the books, plus the occasional guest performers), Red Stitch has built a solid reputation for introducing overseas work from playwrights who would otherwise not be featured on the local stage.
It has also staged Australian plays to similar acclaim, of which Year of the Family is its third Australian premiere this year.
It is quirky, perverse and unpredictable, characteristic of the plays staged by the troupe. Twentysomething half-sisters Claire (Laura Gordon) and Fliss (Kat Stewart) lack a father, and so go about in their own muddled way to find a replacement.
Claire takes to a silvery-haired man, Dickie (Peter Stratford), to her bed while also indulging in a sadomasochistic relationship with vicious Sid (Ross Ditcham) – who in turn nurses plans for punishing his dad for desertion.
While her sister moves between paternalistic and psychotic lovers, Fliss kidnaps a tramp (David Whiteley) and methodically sets out to fashion him in the image of her late father. Dressed in another man’s clothes and tutored in the idiosyncrasies of his life, the tramp slowly becomes a willing participant in Fliss’s delusions.
Gordon and Stewart are excellent as the lovelorn sisters who are brittle in their need; Ditcham and Stratford are also orphans seeking acceptance, while Whiteley is all awkward vulnerability in his largely mute role. Ross Ganf ably directs the short, sharp scenes, which cut from the exploits of one sister to the other.
Year of the Family shows how the desperate and the lonely gravitate towards one another to seek a functional family within the dysfunctional. Tainted by the blackest of humour, the final tableau of this makeshift family gathering for Christmas dinner is as triumphant as it is unsettling.
First performed in London in 1994, in what was known as the European Year of the Family, the play is Anthony Neilson’s retort to the biologically determined, politically beloved concept of the nuclear family.
The artificial constructs set up by the siblings are shown to be no less a viable option for those trying to find a connection. Neilson belongs to a collective called In-Yer-Face Theatre, which is notorious for its course language and questioning of moral norms. Another of his plays, Stitching, performed last year by independent Melbourne company Theatre@risk, pre-empted the sexual violence and the deft dissection of relationship found in Year of the Family.
Once again, red Stitch has chosen and performed well. Long may it survive the vagaries of the Australian theatre climate.
Helen Thomson, The Age 12/05/04
In this production of one of Britain’s “In Yer Face” company, Anthony Neilson, Red Stitch pushes the boundaries in new ways. This is probably what Red Stitch does best, and it is to their credit that they have included two guest actors and a South Australian director, Ross Ganf.
In Yer Face Theatre could probably be summed up as everything that is not polite. The language is extreme, the action disturbing, the usual moral framework distorted. The result is confronting, particularly so in the cramped confines of Red Stitch’s little theatre.
Neilson’s play, first performed in London in 1994 (the International Year of the Family), turns the notion of family on its head. Its five characters manage to look unremarkable in the outside world, but when they assume family roles – sister, father, son, daughter – they all look like suitable cases for treatment. Dysfunctional hardly suffices to describe their strange, twisted relationships and damaged personalities.
Neilson is not interested in trying to work out why they are the way they are. It’s true Freud would have had something to say about the two half-sisters, Claire (Laura Gordon) and Fliss (Kat Stewart, pictured), who both want daddy as a lover. But since their biological fathers are missing, they make do with “found” men of a suitable age.
Fliss kidnaps a tramp (David Whiteley, pictured) and tries to brainwash him into assuming the identity of her dead father. Unsurprisingly, he has problems of his own, but does fall in love with the idea of Fliss’s mother, not exactly what Fliss had in mind.
While her crazy adventure begins to unravel, Claire finds sleeping with both father Dickie (Peter Stratford) and brother Sid (Ross Ditcham) more and more tricky. Sid is violent and unstable, playing out his own Freudian drama with Dickie, using Claire as his weapon.
The play tells a weird story, but its style – and here much can be attributed to Ganf – is confronting and disturbing. It swings from manic humour to tragic farce, troubling us with the real emotional needs that drive these characters into extreme behaviour.
The cast give this play the full-blown treatment it needs in a production that is full of surprising comedy and sometimes shocking frankness.