Subtlenuance would seem to be going from strength to strength. Oh sure, writer-director Paul Gilchrist and producer Daniela Giorgi have faltered here-and-there but, all-in-all, bugger all. This time out, they join forces with The Spare Room, an initiative of historic New Theatre that facilitates co-productions between same and indie theatre companies, emerging and established, funded by Arts NSW. (See, don’t believe what you’ve heard, the NSW government is good for something.)
Unusually, Subtlenuance’s latest, A Quiet Night In Rangoon, isn’t written by Gilchrist, but Katie Pollock; ‘though Gilchrist still directs, with Georgia Symons as his right hand.
Chloe Lawrence-Hartcher has come up with quite a captivating set, that echoes the hue of the Saffron Revolution, which this play is, essentially, about. At the back of the stage are a series of veils, a little like the mist which, one imagines, might shroud The Lake, played, powerfully, by Shauntelle Benjamin. It’s also a dead giveaway, metaphorically, I s’pose, for the distortions and vagueness that derive from restrictions placed on journalists and reporting, not to mention the generic biases and agenda overlaid by concentrated, mega-media ownership.
Pollock has been candid enough to confess she was worried the trouble in Burma might be at an end by the time she got her play, which she started on in 2007, up. No such luck. Despite the release of Aung Sun Suu Kyi from prolonged house arrest, beleaguered Burma limps on in its quest for democracy.
The playwright has created some compelling characters and has afforded us some parallel insights into Buddhism. Indeed, she looks at Burma through this spiritual prism. John Buencamino is Mickey, a novice monk yet to take his final vows. He struggles his obligation to forgive, recalling the night, at just two years of age, when his father was torn from the family home. Hence, he’s a monk that carries a knife, for protection. He’s on the horns of a dilemma and we feel his torment, as he hides out, subsisting with the anxiety that, at any moment, his whereabouts might be discovered. He teeters on paranoia. Small wonder.
Felino Dolloso, despite his diminutive stature, towers as The Major. At times, he’s truly intimidating, as he crashes through the fourth wall, a veritable South Asian Saddam, to scare the living daylights out of us. It’s no quantum leap into the kind of hell Mickey and so many others must endure, wondering what might become of them, and when, and knowing, full well, the terrifying possibilities.
Aileen Huynh is Kitty, a girl dishing up information to The Major, under duress, while duplicitously infiltrating Mickey’s underground world. With her father’s wellbeing at stake, she’s left with Hobson’s choice.
Sonya Kerr is The ‘Net, a cantankerous, capricious, smarmy computer we all recognise and loathe. Her middle name is Microsoft. It’s an effective character, even if her performance seems a mite less than self-assured, at times.
Kathryn Schuback is clueless Australian travel journo Piper, ordered by her editor to go after breaking news. She’s out of her depth and element and scared, well, witless. It’s a good guide to the kind of expectations we place upon reporters at the coalface and the very human foibles that may well creep into the news we get.
Barton Williams is sobering as torture victim and traitor, Pluto, who gives up Mickey’s father, sealing his fate. it’s easy to be judgmental from the comfort of our theatre seats but, at the same time, not so hard to imagine we, too, might compromise our moral and ethical standards, if burnt enough with cigarettes, or probed anally for lengthy periods. Pollock raises these confronting spectres with implicit skill, rather than graphic representation. I thank her for that.
Amidst all this weight, there is humour, but its placement is sometimes dubious and feels like a feeble and fruitless attempt to relieve the burden of our responsibilities in the region. Then again, we must all laugh in the face of hardship. The greater the hardship, the harder we must laugh. Historically, it’s survival 101; a necessity, to keep mind and soul together, even when body may be battered.
For those already reasonably well-versed in the continuing tragedy that is modern Burma, A Quiet Night will come as a disquieting reminder. For those who know little or nothing, you’ll learn a lot and be further edified by the unfolding drama, with standout performances from Benjamin, Buencamino, Dolloso and Williams.
The details: A Quiet Night In Rangoon plays New Theatre until September 10. Tickets through MCA-Tix.