Review: Sugarland (ATYP)

atypVenue: ATYP (Walsh Bay NSW), Aug 27 – Sep 13, 2014
Playwright: Rachael Coopes, Wayne Blair
Director: Fraser Corfield, David Page
Cast: Narek Arman, Michael Cameron, Rachael Coopes, Elena Foreman, Hunter Page-Lochard, Dubs Yunupingu
Image by Tracey Schramm

Theatre review
Sugarland is a work about teenagers in Katherine, a remote town in the Northern Territory. The play is performed by young actors, aged 17 to 21, but written by adult artists who have studied the youth of the region over a two-year period. Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair’s script is powerful in its authenticity, with controversial elements that resonate with a disarming honesty. The truths it reveals, both beautiful and ugly, would be challenging for any audience. Like most memorable work about teenagers, from Puberty Blues (Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette) to Kids (Larry Clark), it is the shocking transgressions they depict that leave an impression, and it is precisely the taboo nature of what is being discussed that makes these texts significant and valuable.

Directed by Fraser Corfield and David Page, the production is unexpectedly elegant and subdued. The confronting issues it tackles are not sensationalised. Instead, they are presented in a quietly pragmatic way so that we are prevented from feeling any sense of alienation from its characters. We are seduced into a deceptively cosy world, which in fact contains many aspects that disturb our middle class notions of conventions and acceptability. Corfield and Page’s achievement is in their creation of a political theatre that chooses to speak rationally, rather than to appeal with overblown emotion and hysterical expression. Their gentle approach allows the play’s message to seep through, and to strike a chord where dismissive delusions usually reside.

Performances are not always accomplished, but every actor’s creation on this stage is thoroughly fascinating. The teenage characters seem familiar, but we are provided rare insight into a depth that habitually evades public scrutiny. Dubs Yunupingu plays Nina, a disenfranchised high school girl of indigenous background. Yunupingu has a sensitive quality that we connect with, and a fragility that secures our empathy. The lack of pretension in her craft is refreshing and often very moving. The unhinged Jimmy is portrayed by Hunter Page-Lochard whose impressive presence gives the show a dangerous edge. Page-Lochard is an exuberant performer who brings an exciting unpredictability to his every appearance. Narek Arman is a jovial and charming actor, and his interpretation of the recent Iraqi migrant Aaron is a delightful contrast to the other moodier personalities.

The beginning of political action is awareness, and awareness begins at giving a voice to the disadvantaged. The isolated inhabitants of Sugarland cannot see the privileged lives of its Sydney audience, but their stories and adversities are told to us without ambiguity. They do not seem angry or claim to be desperate, but we know that every young Australian deserves more. The distinction between the haves and the have nots in this lucky country is an unequivocal disgrace, and the journey towards greater equity must be accelerated.