Review: The Big Dry (Ensemble Theatre / ATYP)

ensembleVenue: Ensemble Theatre (Kirribilli NSW), Jun 4 – Jul 2, 2016
Playwright: Mark Kilmurry (from the novel by Tony Davis)
Director: Fraser Corfield
Cast: Sofia Nolan, Rory Potter, Noah Sturzaker, Richard Sydenham
Image by Clare Hawley

Theatre review
Three children are stranded and left to their own devices in a dystopian future. An endless drought has hit Australia, and civilisation as we know it has collapsed. The Big Dry is about our abuse of the environment and the consequences that our children have to bear when the struggle for survival becomes abject and savage. They rely on each other to stay alive, and their bond becomes the centre of their universe. Tony Davis’ story is dark, but we respond with a natural thirst for hope, even though it gives us no indication of salvation. Mark Kilmurry’s adaptation gives mother nature a tremendous dominance, but its humans are insufficiently captivating, with dialogue and personalities that pale by comparison.

Stars of the show are lighting designer Benjamin Brockman and sound designer Daryl Wallis, both of whom use their considerable technical skills to tell a story of cruel and imminent tragedy. Brockman introduces a boundless variety of moods and spatial transformations with inventive hues that impose upon the stage, a brutal power evocative of harsh climates and their impact on our planet’s living creatures. Wallis is responsible for the show’s tensions, offering the audience a glimpse into the apocalypse with a series of clamouring and sinister rumbles that send our nerves shivering with foreboding. Young actor Sofia Nolan puts on an accomplished performance as Emily, demonstrating good focus and intensity. Her work is energetic, with a healthy dose of sincerity that helps endear herself to the audience.

The production depicts calamitous events but is itself moderate in temperament. We never quite connect with the characters, and even though we understand the high stakes involved, its scenes are unable to lead us convincingly to a suspension of disbelief. Its concepts are strong and universal, but its drama feels distant and elusive. To convey the pressing need for societies to escalate individual and political action on climate change is not an easy task, with habits of modernity firmly entrenched in all our lives and necessary sacrifices proving too difficult even to contemplate. Ecological messages are hard to take, especially it seems, when the ugly truth is revealed. The Big Dry is not a walk in the park, but to expect an easy ride from its subject matter is probably more than a little unwise.

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