Venue: Old 505 Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Sep 1 -12, 2015
Playwright: Philip Ridley
Directors: Fiona Hallenan-Barker & Emma Louise
Cast: Claudia Barrie
Image by Daina Marie Photography
Finding a way to accurately articulate the problems that our societies face is never easy. We can come up with convenient sound bites that attempt to encapsulate what it is that we mean, but we risk trivialising issues through the abstractions that inevitably come with semantic abbreviations. Philip Ridley’s Dark Vanilla Jungle does the opposite. In his deeply harrowing one-woman play, teenager Andrea is the lightning rod at which our failures as a modern community converge. In its oppressive 90 minute duration, we are presented a life experienced through endless days of horror, none of which are due to any fault of Andrea’s own. Her innocence is the target of every evil that walks the planet, while all that is good lays comatose and unable to provide any protection. The story is about sexism, capitalism and poverty, the disintegration of community, and the dissolution of humanity that is occurring in our contemporary lives. It is raw, unflinchingly cruel, and devastating, but it is important.
Under the direction of Fiona Hallenan-Barker and Emma Louise, the production becomes an exercise in the depiction of pain. We are an audience numbed by the 24-hour news cycle, calloused by images of dead children appearing alongside idiot billionaires running for office. The need to communicate trauma is urgent in Dark Vanilla Jungle, and its persistence overwhelms our natural impulse to evade its barrage of very dark emotions. The long script is subtly broken up into sections presented with astute tonal variations that keep us engaged, and the gradual revelations in its narrative are handled with a finesse that provide just enough shock value so that their gravity is communicated without being unduly sensationalist or distracting. The use of a clear plastic curtain separating us from the action builds a sentimental and cerebral distance that may encourage more analysis in the viewing experience, but the sacrifice in terms of an opportunity for more emotional involvement is perhaps too great. The show is an undeniably intense one, but the plot structure requires greater care in its second half to sustain its power. After some unbelievably harsh details are divulged, the play falls into a disappointing slump, which it eventually does recover from, but the flaw is an apparent one in an otherwise extremely accomplished rendition of a very difficult text.
Claudia Barrie’s astounding performance as Andrea impresses with a savage depth that is rarely encountered. Her fearlessness in embodying such a degree of gruesome atrocity gives us nowhere to hide, and we can only respond with compassion. The earthly complexity she manufactures, together with the portrayal of her character’s fundamental pureness, gives Andrea a palpable authenticity that we connect closely and immediately with. We are angered by her torment and wish to protect her, and this instinct makes us examine stories like hers, and other injustices of our world, with renewed resolve and passion. Even in the darkest winters of the Antarctica, flowers are poised to bloom. Life is resilient beyond our conception, but our neglect of the disadvantaged is a transgression that needs to be rescinded at this moment.