Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Apr 19 – 30, 2016
Playwright: Dennis Kelly
Director: Richard Hilliar
Cast: Liam Nunan, Jacki Mison, Christopher Morris
In Dennis Kelly’s Orphans, we look at violence and its origins. Liam is a young man who encounters unspeakable brutality. His world is one of turbulence and confusion, the nature of which was established years ago as an orphaned child, that he unfortunately sustains through to the present day. Helen is his caring sister who although similarly traumatised, is determined to create normalcy in their lives. Their story is a moving one, but presented with additional dimensions of a thriller and some very black comedy. The conflict between Helen’s order and Liam’s chaos presents tensions that serve the play well, with a skilfully designed escalation of stakes that draws us in deeper and deeper into its drama.
The very compelling characters in Orphans are played by three excellent actors who showcase their remarkable talents in a work that presents some colourful extremities to show off their thespian muscles. Director Richard Hilliar opens up every opportunity for the players to shine, and the thoroughness at which each personality is explored and portrayed, is the show’s strongest feature. Liam Nunan’s depiction of his role (also named) Liam’s trauma is unrelenting yet textured. The level of focus and emotional power he puts on display is a marvellous sight that provides a sense of edginess appropriate for the confronting nature of the material. Equally intense is Jacki Mison who gives Helen an intriguing sense of complexity that is almost hypnotic in its appeal. The more she reveals, the more we wish to discover, and the authenticity she is able to introduce along with the character’s strangeness keeps us engrossed in Helen’s quandary. Christopher Morris has a more subtle approach but is no less dynamic as Helen’s husband Danny, whose surprising transformations through the plot are crafted with great instinct and precision. The outlandish narrative is offered balance by the actor’s quiet but confident presence, allowing us breathing space within its profusion of aggressive energy.
There is also good work to be found in Liam O’Keefe’s lighting design and Tegan Nicholls’ efforts on sound. Atmosphere is generally modulated well for transitions between scenes, although visual cues do not provide enough certainty about the married couple’s socio-economic status, which becomes increasingly relevant. Similarly ambiguous are the play’s comic qualities. The darkness of its themes notwithstanding, clearer indication of humour would garner better responses to the production, and provide a greater variance in tonal shifts over its duration.
Trauma in childhood is perhaps inevitable. At varying degrees, each of us would have felt violated or betrayed in our time as small, vulnerable creatures navigating the environment, but how we develop from that tainted moment, is a real concern that Orphans investigates. We think about the process of growing up, and question the practicability of becoming happily stable adults. Some of us discover the fallacy of “happy ever after” early on but many others cling to the belief that ideals exist and a life of perfection is within reach. The truth is that things do get better, but whether we believe that there can ever be an end to personal struggle, would depend exclusively on each individual’s outlook.