Venue: PACT Theatre (Erskineville NSW), May 7 – 30, 2015
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Director: Claudia Barrie
Cast: Josh Anderson, Joseph Del Re, Rhonda Doyl, Libby Fleming, Andrew Johnston, Brendan Miles, Liam Nunan
Illusory contours “are perceived where there is no physical luminance, colour or texture difference,” referring to our ability to see things that are not actually there. In the case of Philip Ridley’s Shivered, we form narratives and create meanings from a series of scenes that do not immediately relate to each other, almost as though in a state of delusion. Our human nature is explored not only in the stories being told, but also in the way the audience is encouraged to makes sense of all that is put on stage. Looking at our propensity to interpret events in a way that never strays far from “cause and effect”, it is an examination of logic, which the play suggests is sometimes insufficient, and indeed, futile. Ridley’s work deals with many of the worst things in life, and makes us wonder if we can ever think of our darkest moments as inevitable, and the ethical implications of being embroiled in disappointments and disasters that we do not have direct control over.
These are big philosophical considerations, but individual scenes are melodramatic, almost operatic, in nature. Director Claudia Barrie invests heavily into that duality of intellect and emotion, with a fierce dedication to her stagecraft, and her work here is effective on both those levels. We get caught up in intense family drama not unlike those favoured by tabloid journalism, but the work is unrelenting in placing us at a conceptual distance so that we are always analysing the catastrophic consequences from an abstract perspective, in addition to experiencing the anguish that is being performed. The text is an edgy one, and Barrie takes great care in having Ridley’s words articulated with excellent clarity, but with all the taboo subjects involved, the production often feels tame in its expression when compared to the controversies being discussed.
Light and set design by Benjamin Brockman delivers a sophisticated space that is able to portray abstraction or realism as required, sometimes simultaneously. It accommodates the haphazard timeline of the plot beautifully, and the starkness of his aesthetic matches the brutality of Ridley’s writing very well, but at over two hours, scene transitions become repetitive and predictable later in the piece. The economy of technology Brockman experiments with, though slightly restrictive, is a success story that signals a significant evolution in lighting for Sydney stages.
The cast is detailed and powerful. Every character in the show touches us, despite the outrageous contexts we find them in. Libby Fleming alternates between quite campy humour and palpable rawness, for an enthralling performance that is as fascinating as it is moving. Her impressive ability to portray depths of despair provides a solid core of empathy that keep us anxiously attentive. The connection Fleming establishes with her sons in the play is the crucial ingredient that secures the gravity for its various threads of turmoil. Also wonderfully engaging is Liam Nunan whose presentational style effervesces with extravagance, but with a surprisingly convincing focus that keeps us engaged. Josh Anderson plays the damaged young Ryan with quiet sensitivity, but the threatening intensity he produces teeters close to eruption, and we are fascinated by the complexity he consistently works into his role.
There are horrors around us, and they are by nature absurd, for if they were fathomable, they would also be preventable. Humanity necessitates that we make sense of things, but life often insists on defying logic to demonstrate its dominance over humans. Life is hard, but we are resilient. All the characters in Shivered struggle, and their persistence with survival means that in order to overcome, they have to figure things out, whether possible or not. No one in the play gives up, and that is the moral of the story.