Review: A Man With Five Children (Darlinghurst Theatre Company)

darloVenue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Jun 3 – 26, 2016
Playwright: Nick Enright
Director: Anthony Skuse
Cast: Jemwel Danao, Chenoa Deemal, Charlotte Hazzard, Jody Kennedy, Ildiko Susany, Anthony Taufa, Aaron Tsindos, Jeremy Waters, Taylor Wiese
Image by Helen White

Theatre review
Like the “Up Series” from British television, Gerry in Nick Enright’s A Man With Five Children begins documenting the lives of five Australian seven year-olds in 1964 with his camera. Initially revisiting the group once a year, he becomes increasingly embroiled with his subjects, and the films he produces begin to lose their objectivity. The nature of Gerry’s art and his relationships are constantly transforming. We think about his responsibilities as film-maker, the validity of his work, and consequently, our collusion as a public that encourages intrusions of this nature. Enright’s play is highly sophisticated, with a big number of themes running through its stories, all thoughtful and sensitive, but its admirable complexity comes at a sacrifice of dramatic tension and focus. Several plot twists are revealed too abruptly, and its ambition to feature all five children with equal weight creates a narrative structure that our emotions struggle to find suitable empathy for.

The work is directed with excellent ingenuity by Anthony Skuse whose combination of live action and film expresses beautifully the way time and space is intertwined in the text (Christopher Page’s lights and Tim Hope’s AV design work together in perfect harmony for a presentation that will be remembered for its precise and elegant aesthetic iterations). Humanity is at the foreground, and Skuse’s remarkable compassion for every character is clear to see, but the ambiguous interpretation of Gerry’s traits and motives is ultimately too mild for its audience to respond with greater passion. Actor Jeremy Waters’ solid stage presence anchors the show appropriately with Gerry’s experiences, regardless of the character’s dubious attributes. It is a performance with power and sincerity, and although not a likeable role, we cannot help but be impressed by Waters’ professionalism and the obvious refinement of his craft.

The cast of nine forms a cohesive and engrossing ensemble. Every scene is lively and authentic, and every line of dialogue is delivered with wonderful conviction. Jemwel Danao plays the innocence and tragedy of Roger to great effect, creating the most poignant moments on stage with an approach that is unique in its subtlety, but also emotionally rich. He speaks directly to our sentimental sides, bringing us back to the play’s tender heart amidst its complications of ideas and incidents. Similarly heartbreaking is Jody Kennedy as Zoe, the girl who believes herself to be “ordinary”. The actor takes her character through many distinct transformations, each one striking in their accuracy, and is consistently charming with every portrayal. The “five children” perform to us not only in the flesh but also through the camera lens, and it is noteworthy that their work on screen is equally accomplished.

The media has played a major part of our lives for decades, but its increasing ubiquity from year to year cannot be understated. A Man With Five Children first appeared before the era of social media, so its major concerns are dealt with in ways that are perhaps slightly outmoded. Gerry is in a position of power that influences lives, in a way not dissimilar to how our own lives are being manipulated by corporations that seduce and insist on our reliance. On the surface, it is a love-hate relationship, but the play leaves little doubt as to the damage that any media can cause when we invite it into personal realms. Gerry’s children would have escaped his domination if their parents had not volunteered their participation but we can scarcely withdraw from the gaze of the modern world through the prevalence of smartphones and their infinite applications. There was a time before screens, and we all fall into the trap of yearning for those simpler days, but the truth is that humans have never been pure and life has never been easy. We have to identify the challenges of our times and their prevailing evils, and do our best to turn things for the better, even in the knowledge that the next malice is just around the corner.