Review: Thom Pain – Based On Nothing (Sydney Independent Theatre Company)

Auditorium_American-issue_TVenue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), May 5 – 10, 2014
Playwright: Will Eno
Director: Julie Baz
Actor: David Jeffrey

Theatre review (originally published at auditoriummag.com)
Thom Pain (Based On Nothing) is about fear, loss and loneliness. Will Eno depicts a state of sadness that is genuine in its erratic complexity, but also joyful and humorous in its profound observations. Thom Pain is a man who has experienced disappointments, and he knows what betrayal and injustice feels like. Eno’s script expresses the process that one needs to go through in order to emerge renewed and strengthened, but Pain has not yet found that enlightenment.

His struggle is the flesh and blood of this work, and a representation of a condition of being that is too easily forgotten. The human capacity to leave pain behind after it subsides, makes this a valuable piece of rumination. We get over things and move on, but Pain’s very presence demonstrates some of the intricacies of our coping mechanisms, and watching them in action is fascinating. The writing has a rambling incoherence that seems theatrical, but also poignantly realistic. We are rarely clear of mind at troubled times, and Eno utilises that natural inability to make sense of things, to great dramatic effect. Everything is strange yet familiar. The audience observes the peculiarity of Pain’s behaviour, while feeling a close affinity to the character.

Thom Pain (Based On Nothing) is a work of art that cuts deeply and meaningfully, revealing an image of our own humanity through a mirror that is rarely uncovered. It is also a work of excellent entertainment, with performer David Jeffrey providing the one-man show considerable pathos and a very charming whimsy. In spite of his considerable actorly talents, Jeffrey brings a quality of diffidence to the stage that gives his character an authenticity that we not only warm to, but almost feel protective towards. The text’s unconventional structure risks alienating its audience, but we care for the man Jeffrey creates, and he makes us sit and listen intently.

He is very funny, and very wry. He wallows, but he is also self-effacing. He plays with our emotions, taking them on an unpredictable and haphazard journey, to all the spaces we messily label “mixed emotions”. Jeffrey’s achievement however, goes further than succeeding in making us laugh and cry. The actor’s portrayal of melancholy is so charged with vulnerability, it reminds us of feelings we bury deep within. The same ones we can sense in our bodies almost everyday but are rarely allowed to surface. Jeffrey makes that pain emerge with a quiet wonder, and in the safety of the theatre, we encounter the closest friend of all, our own broken hearts.

Melancholia is the overriding tone, and perhaps theme, of the show. Director Julie Baz creates an atmosphere thick with moody pensiveness, and it is seductive. The evocative and beautiful underscoring music is a selection of pieces from Sergey Akhunov’s Big Elegy To John Cage, which contribute greatly to the production’s introspective texture. Melancholy visits us all and people relate to it in different ways, ranging from repulsion to pleasure. Accordingly, the production’s appeal would vary according to tastes, but the liberal amount of comedy intelligently added to Baz’s weighty microcosm, ensures that the work speaks to many.

It is often too easy to overindulge in lengthy well-written passages, putting too much trust on the words to work their own magic. Baz is conscious of the pitfalls of extended monologues and wisely encourages the actor to embellish with movement, both exaggerated and subtle, resulting in a performance that is energetic and optically dynamic. The use of space is similarly active, but stage design is overly minimal due to Eno’s specifications. He believes that “there is a humility about theatre and life in the script; it should be there in the production, too.” This is a persuasive argument, but it is also true that the script could benefit from greater visual flourish and imagination. Pain talks about magic, and there are moments where our eyes wish for something slightly fantastical to materialise.

The view inside Pain’s mind is bittersweet, truthful, and scarred, and therefore beautiful. His story is hopeful, yet he seems oblivious to the good around him, and inside of himself. Blinded by fear and dejection, he is a whirling dervish in search of salvation. For us, his magnificent dance is a spiritual lift, and we desire only the best for him, in the trust that a new dawn is always on the approach.

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