Slaughterhouse Five, the much acclaimed science fiction anti-war novel, has undergone a number of adaptations and reincarnations over the many years since its original publication in 1969. Multiple plays, an opera, a radio drama and a film have all come about since Kurt Vonnegut’s controversial book featuring a time traveling soldier hit shelves. The text is still much discussed amongst schools in America, and has frequently been banned from high school libraries due to its heavily violent and sexual content, whilst often being described as ‘anti-Christian’. While these may not seem like worthy reasons to omit a text from a school, the novel does also include some severe historical inaccuracies and homophobia. It seems odd that in this modern adaptation by Fleur Kilpatrick, none of these defining elements are addressed or dissected.
This particular adaptation is being restaged by Monash University Student Theatre (MUST), after an initial season in 2016, and is running at the iconic Theatre Works venue in St Kilda. Adapted and directed by Kilpatrick, the show runs for just over a whopping two and a half hours. There is significant room for editing and refinement in this show, it could easily run at half the length, amping up the tension and pacing along the way.
Despite a long and quite physical production, the actors fare well and with performers less committed and engaged, this show could become hard to watch. Fortunately the cast create a cohesive ensemble, with most playing scores of characters throughout the show. Although this production is undoubtedly an ensemble work, there are standout performers that deliver their roles with particular clarity. Sam Barson plays the title role of Billy Pilgrim, a soldier who undergoes horrific experiences at war, including time travel and alien abduction. The whole show rests on Barson’s shoulders, and he absolutely does the content justice. Providing an honest and focused sounding board for other actors to engage with, he plays Pilgrim with a beautiful truth and sincerity. Caitlin Duff is a truly outstanding company member, jumping from propaganda spouting preacher to flirty bride on her wedding night. She moves seamlessly from one character to the next, and my eye is always drawn to her even when she is appearing as part of the ensemble.
The staging and movement direction are also to be commended, the stage is quite deep however is sectioned off through the use of multiple chalkboards as the major set pieces. This design by Jason Lehane serves as an opportunity for stage business, and allows the actors to create the constantly changing settings of the play in fresh and unexpected ways. The lighting by John Collopy is stark yet subtle, and partners beautifully with a sinister sound design by Justin Gardam. In the production, these design elements really shine, outweighing some of the pretty average costume choices. Whilst a show with aliens, a group of porn performers and so many character changes should provide the perfect playground for costuming choices, Dil Kaur’s design falls flat with ill fitting latex, unimaginative uniforms and aliens that would not look out of place in a primary school pantomime.
A theme of this show appears to be disparity. There are moments where the play is almost Epic, but there is never a commitment made to this genre, and by the end it sits somewhere within the depths of Post Dramatic. There are brief confusing moments of self referential meta, abstract movement sequences sat right next to solemn naturalistic monologues and an extremely heavy handed “and so it goes”, link to a death tally on a chalkboard. This line is never delivered in ways that would subvert audience expectation, and despite being marketed as a black comedy, there are very few comedic elements, both in the deliverance of this line and in the play overall.
This production is an excellent piece of student theatre. It is unfortunate that the biggest downfalls of the work are due to the writing and direction, a role not undertaken by a student. With a much tighter script with more editing and a clearer intention of genre, dissection of a controversial text and ultimate intended meaning, this production could be powerful and subversive. Despite some quality designers and commendable performances, this work isn’t quite there yet.
Slaughterhouse Five by MUST runs at Theatre Works from 24 April — 5 May 2019.