The cast of Delectable Shelter | Seymour Centre

Delectable Shelter is the latest instalment in the 2013 Reginald Theatre (downstairs, Seymour Centre) season, presented by Critical Stages and The Hayloft Project; written and directed by Benedict Hardie. On its website, Hayloft describes this play as a black comedy about white terror and the comic sensibility implicit in that description is a very good guide to the work itself. A motley crew of well-to-do palefaces have been corralled into a subterranean bunker, to avoid whatever acme apocalypse has befallen the rest of Earth’s hapless inhabitants trapped on the surface.

It’s Tor (Jolyon James), apparently, who’s saved them. Tor is a tall, strange savant well-versed in the mathematical dimensions of the situation they face. He has handpicked a correspondingly strange and necessarily wealthy family to sustain the Aryan purity of the human race, to the extent it still exists. The plan, through rigidly-rostered progressive bonking sessions, is to repopulate.

In one fell, foul swoop, Hardie delivers a tragicomic premise and promise, but accentuates the comic end of it. Nonetheless, while I was laughing steadily through the performance, surprisingly, it does leave one with something to chew on. Obviously, the spectre of climate change has supplanted the earlier threat of a nuclear winter. But the end is still nigh. Maybe even nigher. On the one hand, we have to do something constructive to avert a marginally avertable disaster. On the other, we need to laugh, because what else is there to do?

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What isn’t funny is the inversion of the biblical promise that the meek shall inherit the Earth. Of course, they won’t. The Murdochs and Packers will. Have. In singling out quirky, heedless Lexus drivers as the last procreatives, we’re reminded, depressingly, of how the system really works. It’s not so much who you know, as how much you can pay. Of course, for the privileged, the end of the world can seem imminent if their favoured coffee roaster should run out of single origin organic Guatemalan. Or if they should find themselves in a badly-decorated bunker, furnished with wallpaper that matches the chair fabric. Still, one has to keep one’s chin up.

Yesse Spence is Biddy and it falls to her to steadfastly maintain a neurotic stiff upper lip. Hers is the voice of vacuous, baseless optimism. Andrew Broadbent is Reginald, her husband, a man obsessed with the future of humanity, at least insofar as it affects him. His sense of entitlement is breathtaking. Brendan Hawke is their emotionally stunted son Grayson, married to Malory (Simone Page Jones), as an adjunct member of the family the only one untainted by their shallow gene pool.

Set designer Claude Marcos has claustrophobically encapsulated them in a box that looks like Rose Seidler House, albeit with decor that would’ve made her son apoplectic, save for a single window into a world of beauty, via a Van Gogh image. Esther Marie Hayes has put all but Grayson, who looks like he might’ve just stepped out of, say, a Ginger Meggs cartoon strip, in ostensibly utilitarian clothes befitting their social status.

Every so often, though, between scenes, the actors step out of the box, appearing in salmon satin robes, forming a very impressive choral ensemble, singing medieval songs of praise to eighties hits, such as Foreigner’s power balls, I Want To Know What Love Is. (Well, why not? I guess if you were born in the early eighties you’re heading steadily towards the middle ages.) It’s bizarre, apparently apropos of nothing in particular and highly entertaining. Composer, Benny Davis, and musical director Nathan Gilkes, have outdone themselves. Alister Mews sound design supports both dialogue and choir, well, soundly. Lucy Birkinshaw spotlights the choir, which endows it with a heavenly glow; meanwhile, back in the box, there’s a cold, hard, futuristic light that beams down on the ungrateful survivors.

By and by, we see the outcomes of Tor’s breeding programme, in future generations, that’ve even taken on the idiosyncratic language of their antecedent survivors (such as NTdubs, shorthand for “not to worry!”). They’ve developed their own religion, too, which seems to be centred around the sacredness of the albatross. In this dystopian futurama, the human race seems to have become even less human, more paranoid, xenophobic and superstitious, if that’s possible. Let’s hope the blackly humorous instincts of Hardie are not matched by any capacity for prescience. Mind you, there’s no escaping the recognisable, real life repulsiveness of  the likes of the Mosmaniacal Reginald and Biddy.

Hardie’s bitter and twisted cynicism is, tragically, barely up to the task of addressing the vacuousness and prejudice that has come to characterise life as we now know it. Down below, in the enclave, they’ve made room for a solarium, but there’s no hint of, say, a library. Later, we find Tor hasn’t been entirely candid with his charges about them being the only survivors. We learn that tenacious Chinese have managed to cling on, which tends to go to the persistence of Caucasian imperialism: it’s as if the Orientals are the equivalent of cockroaches, which are alleged to be able to survive practically any catastrophe, whether natural or anthropogenic. It seems the historically endemic mentality that gives rise to notions such as ‘yellow peril’ and political mindsets such as ‘turn back the boats’ have a big future, if Hardie’s prognostications hold.

But don’t worry too much about the cataclysmic dimensions. (That would be un-Australian, after all. It goes against the grain of our apathy.) You can easily go along, suspending disbelief, buying into a silly (at moments. a little too silly) sci-fi phantasm and having a pretty good time. Not everything works: momentum is a little like a Sydney taxi ride (accelerate, brake; accelerate, brake), but, all in all, it supports Hayloft’s form-bending approach to theatre.

The details: Delectable Shelter played the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre on August 13-17.

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