Review: Ditch (Dream Plane Productions)

Venue: Limelight on Oxford (Darlinghurst NSW), Apr 3 – 13, 2019
Playwright: Beth Steel
Director: Kim Hardwick
Cast: Laurence Coy, Angus Evans, Giles Gartrell-Mills, Fiona Press, Martin Quinn, Jasmin Simmons
Images by Becky Matthews

Theatre review
Beth Steel wrote about a very near future in her 2010 play Ditch, describing a nightmare scenario that seems to prophesy the currently ongoing Brexit ordeal, eventuating at the very worst possible place. We find ourselves in the middle of World War III, but this time, Great Britain is fighting as a fascist state, whilst its land is fast becoming submerged by rising sea levels. Steel’s work offers an alarming look at the world we are turning into. It shows us the horrors we are travelling towards, without dwelling on how we are getting ourselves there, leaving the audience to figure out the root of these problems, and making us go through a process of soul-searching, for an agonising reflective examination of the people that we are.

The play is heavy, but never alienating. A very strong cast turns what should be inconceivable, into an immediate and pressing tale full of frightening resonance. Fiona Press is a persuasive Mrs Peel, of an older generation (which makes her our contemporary) and has a lot to answer for. She keeps calm and carries on, trying to forge ahead as though blameless, or maybe more accurately, suppressing the guilty conscience that must plague her. The other elder of the group, Burns is played by a very nuanced Laurence Coy, able to distinctly represent both fragility and brutishness of the banal male archetype. Young Megan’s powerful presence is embodied by Jasmin Simmons, who impresses with her remarkably textured approach.

As the appropriately domineering and repulsive alpha soldier Turner, Giles Gartrel-Mills adds a subtle dimension of deception to the role, further enhancing the drama that he brings. Angus Evans is wonderfully authentic with the conviction, and precision, so discernible in his depiction of the traumatised Bug. New recruit James is effortlessly innocent, as performed by the incredibly earnest Martin Quinn.

Director Kim Hardwick’s insistence on her actors delivering accuracy and dynamism, proves to be very rewarding. The show’s crescendo grabs hold of us slowly and incrementally, as it builds to an explosive, and very satisfying, conclusion. The production is well designed on all fronts. Set and costumes by Victor Kalka, lights by Martin Kinnane, and sound by Stephanie Kelly, are all cleverly rendered for our easy suspension of disbelief, and for maximum tension. Ditch will not let us off the hook, in its tragedy about all our sins.

Completed pre-Brexit, about a post-Brexit world, Steel knew about the darkness that we were heading for, not because of some supernatural precognitive perception ability, but because our self-destruction is always written on the wall. Much as our catastrophes are unimaginable in scale, they were always foreseeable. Ditch does not wish expressly to be pessimistic, but the truth that it presents, would be challenging even for the most ardent of optimists. At this juncture of our evolution, or some might say devolution, the question seems to be moving away from “how do we survive this?” to something much more like “do we deserve to survive this?”

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5 Questions with Fiona Press and Jasmin Simmons

Fiona Press

Jasmin Simmons: You recently appeared in a production of 1984, do you see any similarities between our world in Ditch and in Orwell’s?
Fiona Press: Yes! So many! Right down to tinned rations and Victory Gin – except in the Ditch world, we drink copious quantities of government-supplied whisky. And there’s no chocolate. Both worlds are governed by a fascistic totalitarian regime that controls the population by pitting the ’Security’ against ‘Civilian’ and turning both against the ‘Illegals’. The threat of amorphous foreign enemies rotates on a monthly basis (think Trump and North Korea) and there’s a touch of Margaret Atwood as well; women are controlled by having their reproductive rights totally denied.

Your character is somewhat of a mentor to mine, are there any women in our industry that have particularly inspired you?
Absolutely. First and most influential was the late Doreen Warburton, co-founder of the Q Theatre, which was my theatrical cradle. Doreen had been mentored by the legendary Joan Littlewood, and brought those same socialist and creative principles to bear in Penrith, which – at the time – had little cultural life. I spent three years attached to the Q, as a student, ASM, ran the box office, understudy (to Judy Davis, another enduring influence) – kind of an unofficial apprenticeship. Doreen was from Lancashire and was larger than life “with the bosom of a goddess and the carriage of an eagle” – PERFECT casting for Mrs Peel!

Do you share Mrs Peel’s green thumb?
Who doing indie theatre has time to garden?! I have a large messy block that’s basically a lizard and funnel web habitat at the moment. However, treat me nice and I might bake us a cake for tech week … my floury thumb is better than my green one.

My character, Megan, is just becoming politically aware, were you a politically aware teenager? Did you march and protest like Mrs Peel did when she was younger?
Oooh yeah – child of the 70s, me. That era defined my political convictions forever. With the Vietnam War on the news as we ate dinner every night, I can remember insisting to my primary school teacher that the topic of our first classroom debate should be ‘that conscription be abolished’. I was convinced my younger brothers would grow up to be drafted and die. I was ten. Then, as a twelve year old, I was the sole ‘It’s Time’ badge wearer at my ‘school for gels’ in 1972 when Gough swept to power and upon the Dismissal in 1975, swapped it for ‘Shame Fraser Shame’. My first overseas trip was in 1978 to the People’s Republic of China.

If you were transported to the world of Ditch in 2050, what are 3 things you would bring with you from 2019?
The small etymological dictionary that my grandfather gave me when I was eight. It still soothes me to open its yellow pages and skim the beauty of words and their origins, their connectedness. A folding hand fan to keep me from going spare in the humidity. And a crystal whisky glass – because if I’m going to drown in my sorrows while living in a ditch, I’m going to do it in style.

Jasmin Simmons

Fiona Press: So, Ditch was written by a young English woman ten years ago. What drew you, as a young Australian woman to this play right now?
Jasmin Simmons: First of all, the play is exceedingly relevant and remarkably fresh. Secondly, I was drawn to the team of inventive and assured women that I am fortunate enough to be working with.

How do the female characters deal within the hefty masculine world of Ditch?
Ditch is set in a post feminist world – the men of the play seem to be the most dominant. The women, however, are the great observers – and there is great power in that.

What’s the most useful skill you have brought to this production?
Multitasking!

‘Post apocalyptic, climate change, fascist dystopia’ sounds a tad depressing. Where’s the hope?
I don’t want to spoil the ending, but the hope lies within the devastation – similar to a bushfire – destruction provokes regrowth, new life.

And are there laughs?
Believe it or not, yes! As well as much breakfast making, animal skinning and whisky drinking.

Fiona Press and Jasmin Simmons can be seen in Ditch by Beth Steel.
Dates: 3 – 13 Apr, 2019
Venue: Limelight On Oxford