Venue: Wharf 1 Sydney Theatre Company (Walsh Bay NSW), May 17 – Jul 5, 2014
Playwright: Jez Butterworth
Director: Iain Sinclair
Cast: Tony Martin, Lindsay Farris, Eamon Farren, Ben O’Toole, Josh McConville
Images by Brett Boardman
Theatre review (originally published at auditoriummag.com)
When boys grow up and begin to find their feet in the adult world as men of stature, the acquisition of masculinity often becomes critically important. The characters in Jez Butterworth’s Mojo seem to spend all their waking moments satisfying that overwhelming and insatiable need to be seen and treated as men of worth, and in the London underground gangland of the late 1950s, this involves unthinkable violence, and outrageous criminality. Butterworth’s daring and extravagantly brutal 1995 script illustrates a world of sex, drugs and rock and roll, where sons are raped, fathers are murdered, and honour is maleficently displaced.
Butterworth’s work starts up in high gear. He gets to the mayhem quickly without setting up thorough introductions for its story. There is a disorientation that occurs in the beginning, and the viewer is required to be alert, in order to decipher manic events while keeping up with the fantastically rich dialogue. Iain Sinclair’s direction in the initial scenes emphasises speed and energy, which can be a challenge for the plot, but a hyper-reality is firmly established for the play’s time and space. We are transported to a past that fits our imagination in part, but also controversial. The play’s rampant drug taking and extreme profanity is a far cry from the innocence of Grease, and the sophistication of Orson Welles’ Touch Of Evil. Sinclair’s work owes more to David Lynch’s 1986 masterpiece Blue Velvet in its handling of ultraviolence and surreal personalities. An air of menace sets in quickly and the pressure it exerts is unrelenting. The production has a magnetic quality in spite of its obscure otherness. It plays like a riddle, glutted with suspense and eccentricity, and we are seduced at every step, desperate to peek around every impending corner.
Indeed, the production succeeds as a piece of narrative-driven entertainment. It is engrossing, amusing and thrilling, with a good amount of shock value thrown in for a sense of gangster authenticity that also gives the show a cool edge. Its themes are not immediately evident, but they resonate afterward. The show does not ask questions directly, but it certainly encourages us to question what had been seen. Sinclair might be comfortable with dramatics that strike like a sledgehammer, but his ability to probe our conscience about bigger issues is as accomplished as it is subtle.
Also displaying excellence is Sinclair’s design team. Visual aspects, including lighting, costumes and sets are adventurously creative and intelligent. Nicholas Rayment’s lights are exhaustively explored, fulfilling functional and aesthetic requirements equally brilliantly. There are moments of beauty that look to be inspired by film noir, and also memorable incidences of dread that are as sinister as a dank lane way in any cosmopolitan city at 3am. Pip Runciman’s set design ingeniously creates spaces out of the usually nondescript Wharf Theatre stage. Levels and doorways are introduced to great effect, and the representation of a nightclub that is attractive in front, and dilapidated behind, is efficiently managed.
Percussionist Alon Ilsar’s work is perhaps the most inventive. He provides accompaniment for most of the scenes, underscoring action by amplifying mood and manufacturing tension. Ilsar’s background sounds are noticeable but not intrusive. When it does come to the fore, it is in the style of experimental jazz, which adds considerable sophistication to the production.
Chemistry in the cast is strong, and mesmerising. The actors are perfectly in tune, and together, they present a microcosm that we find believable in spite of its irrationality, and irresistible even though it is deeply repulsive. Josh McConville is comically frantic as the amphetamine fuelled Potts. His consistent buoyancy gives the play a propelling energy, and prevents the darker sections from becoming too melancholic. There is an enjoyable vibrancy to his performance that keeps an important sense of youth and juvenility in the story. Together with Ben O’Toole’s slightly more innocent Sweet, they portray a couple of young men keen to prove themselves, and to make a mark in their sordid world. Lindsay Farris is enigmatic as Baby, a deranged personality who is central to the play’s interest in maturity and manhood. Farris takes the opportunity to depict his unorthodox character with a liberal measure of offbeat artistic choices, and carves out a fascinating performance that is simultaneously alluring and poignant.
The young men in Mojo are in a state of confusion. We see them exercise the impulse to impress, to emulate, and to succeed, but their role models are severely impaired. Masculinity is highly valued, and in many of our lives, it is through acquiring masculinity that men achieve social acceptance and establish status. The definition of masculinity is then a matter of great concern. Greed, violence, destruction, deception, betrayal and criminality are all inextricably linked with notions of success and fulfillment in Mojo. It is a bleak picture painted of the past, but it seems that the proposition made here is that evolution is illusory, and that boys will be boys.