Review: National Play Festival 2014 (Playwriting Australia)

mothsVenue: Carriageworks (Eveleigh NSW), Jun 12 -15, 2014
Artistic Director: Tim Roseman

Festival review
This year’s National Play Festival was held in Sydney’s Carriageworks. It featured talks, panel discussions, masterclasses, as well as full-length readings of new works. Suzy Goes See attended four of the highlights.

Free Speech: In Their Words featured a panel of four actors, chaired by John McCallum, theatre reviewer and academic. Insights and anecdotes were shared from the perspective of actors, about the experience of working with playwrights, and the presence of playwrights in the rehearsal studio. It appears that writers can be fairly involved in the rehearsal process, and many do not consider their writing complete until rehearsals begin, or indeed conclude. The actors talk about writers who prefer to be less involved, but it seems that their input is a valuable part of the actor’s process. We do not hear of troublesome personalities.

(+65) Singapore Calling is a showcase of works by Checkpoint Theatre of Singapore. Faith Ng’s For Better Or For Worse is read by Jean Ng and Julius Foo, who were the original cast in last year’s premiere production at the Drama Centre in Singapore. Memorable for its use of language, the play explores the fairly mundane world of a married couple in their fifties. The performers are thoroughly engaging, with laughter and pathos delivered effectively, but the work seems a little parochial, unable to extend its insights of a private world into something more universal. Ng’s writing is a charming morsel that represents a part of middle-class life, and would connect well with the right audience, but its potential for greater social significance is questionable.

A short excerpt of a second play, The Weight Of Silk On Skin by Huzir Sulaiman is performed by John Shrimpton. The monologue features another fifty-something character of Chinese heritage, but the English language is radically different in Sulaiman’s text. The character’s accent is of an American variety, and he talks of subjects like 90’s minimalism and Giorgio Armani. One wonders if it is cultural cringe that has necessitated the addition of this extract to supplement the other already lengthy presentation. In any case, it is a shame that a second session was not added for Checkpoint Theatre to present Sulaiman’s script in its entirety.

Samson by Julia-Rose Lewis is about teenagers. Through an examination into the way they communicate, we learn about the world they inhabit. Tom Conroy’s performance as the 15 year-old Rabbit leaves the greatest impression. His work is animated and rich, and even though his mature appearance is at odds with the character being portrayed, we are convinced by what he creates. There is also a dimension of commentary in Conroy’s acting that provides a sense of sophistication to the writing. Lewis’ script has a structure that keeps us engaged. Its balance of melancholy and humour is appealing, and even though the characters might prove slightly obscure, they bear enough colour and depth to keep us entertained.

Moths by Michele Lee is a thorough examination of the Asian-Australian experience. It is highly self-aware, constantly investigating clichés and thus avoiding them. It goes into ideas about what it must be like for Asians in Australia, and dispels each of those notions. There is a sense that definitions are to be resisted in order for each individual to reach their greatest potential. Labels, in language or concept, serve only as hindrances.

Lee’s script is particularly strong in its first half, where a group of Asian-Australian actors workshop a new play based on their perspectives about a supposedly unique experience of identity. The material here is often profound and rarely articulated. In its efforts to avoid being too introspective, the work attempts to extend into an imaginary future with the same cast of characters for the subsequent half. What results is slightly unfocused, but the concepts it introduces are strong.