Review: Telescope (Montague Basement)

montageubasementVenue: Leichhardt Town Hall (Leichhardt NSW), May 12 – 21, 2016
Playwright: Charles O’Grady
Director: Charles O’Grady
Cast: Shevvi Barret-Brown, Caillin McKay
Image by Omnes Photography

Theatre review
Experimentation often happens behind the scenes. A wealth of weird and wonderful things must happen in rehearsals before an audience is introduced to the mix. For Telescope, the experiment happens before our eyes but without us knowing. Each night, actors in the two-hander swap roles, which means that most would only ever see half of the picture. Charles O’Grady’s script is interested in the meanings of gender as experienced at home, and the surprising extent to which it pervades every corner of family life, insidious but unintended. Joss and Vic have a child going through early stages of gender transition. We do not meet Jem, but his presence is felt through the play, like a dark cloud that hangs over the living room in which all action is set. Sequences of mundanity and theatricality combine to form a plot that attempts to demonstrate the turbulent effect of gender coming into consciousness, and to explore the subtleties of how gender informs our relationships.

In between engaging scenes of argument and conflict, the production’s efforts at representing the banal can be overly indulgent. It takes a lot of time to cut to the chase, but while the audience desires drama, Telescope is interested in what happens in quiet moments. Joss and Vic are a very regular couple, but we are not allowed to disregard the minute conventionalities that inform us of their identities. We look for signs and gestures, usually hidden and ignored but sonorous on this stage, to come to an understanding of their relationship. We need to know who is the wife, who is the husband, but in that process of misgendering and determination, question the necessity of that very information. With our discovery of their respective genders, we consider its relevance to the story that unfolds, and indeed its machinations in real life outside of the auditorium.

Performances by Shevvi Barret-Brown and Caillin McKay are uneven, but effective when they find passion and when they are able to demonstrate hints of connection. There is a sense of detachment on the stage that, although challenging for a two-hour show, helps us observe human intimacy from an unusually critical standpoint.

Joss and Vic are unable to live and let live. They struggle to come to terms with Jem’s deviation, and are tormented by his self-determination. Their emotions are true, but also absurd. Vic and Jem are in a tug-of-war at opposite ends of the gender conceit, both insistent on what they deem irrefutable and real. Telescope not only makes us examine that binary, it leads us to its dissolution. The characters in the play speak only in terms of female and male, but what O’Grady puts on stage is a disruption of those simplistic and myopic ways of approaching life. Like feminism that works for the elimination of patriarchal systems, a revision to how we understand, practise and enforce gender in society would lead to greater equity, but that revision is of immense complexity, and we are only at the dawn of that political movement.