(un)Australian: The legacy of a cultural crisis

I like the idea of university theatre groups putting on two short plays instead of a single big one. I like the freedom it affords theatre-makers to experiment and the lowered pressure on the audience. If the first show is bad, it’ll be done soon anyway. And if it’s great, you savour every moment. Four Letter Word Theatre has been deploying the double-bill tactic for quite a few years now and it seems to be paying off. Friends and family of two casts and crews come along, fill out the seats and have a great time watching friends and strangers test some material. Unfortunately, this freedom to experiment coupled with such a brief timeslot can prove overwhelming for some. This is evident in both plays, though to varying extents, in FLW’s new production, (un)Australian.

The first play, Yellow Swan, written by Maki Morita and directed by Cheryl Ho, is a collection of vignettes based around the everyday racism experienced by Michiko (played by Nina D’Souza with exasperating pathos). From Finn Lloyd’s Aussie battler who’s a few sandwiches short of a picnic to Amy Li’s unrelentingly deadpan impression of Marie Kondo, the cast all have great control over the tone of the piece. You can tell they’re working together and each performance elevates one another. Despite a solid cast, Lotte Beckett stands out for her comic timing and total command over the audience. I’ve noted Beckett before for her captivating turn in MUSC’s Plastic Shakespeare and it is gratifying to see her performing a more substantial role. With an impression of Pauline Hanson, Beckett is in equal measures hilarious and terrifying.

Where the play suffers, though, is in the writing. Well-meaning and occasionally very powerful, Yellow Swan’s commentary often becomes too vague and mean-spirited to the point of obfuscating Michika’s point in the first place. It’s in the little moments where I wonder if I’m to laugh at Emmanuelle Mattana’s ignorant producer for drinking soy turmeric lattes, as if to join a chorus of, “Ah, those racists and their complicated coffee orders”, or when Lotte Beckett prays to a photo of Steve Irwin. It all feels like a stoner dad throwing out half-criticisms before getting lost in the next thought. It’s not that these criticisms are invalid; they may well be, but while these gags are still in their infancy, it will never be clear exactly what is being criticised.

On the other hand, in Michika’s overarching transformation into a Marie Kondo impersonator, there is an incisive, meaningful engagement with pop culture. Michika’s internal conflicts, complex and tangled, are deftly explored with ease. Elements like this demonstrate how much potential a play like Yellow Swan has. While the play has a lot of important, thoughtful moments, it would benefit from more clarity in the script.

The next play, Elbow Lotion, written by Esther Cowen and directed by Simon Farley, takes the (un)Australian prompt to more adventurous ends. Never outrightly critical and yet always imbued with a level of unease, Elbow Lotion takes a tripartite structure in presenting three different settings, each centring on the relationship of two people. Though the hour-and-a-half length never quite justifies itself, it is clear that Cowen is an adept writer with a thoroughly skilled cast.

The first section is in the bathroom of a medical office as Lydia Bell’s repulsive nurse encourages a patient, played by Imogen Gibb, to complete her urine sample. Never has peeing in a cup felt so gruelling and, by the same token, intimate. While the narrative is predictable, the performances of Bell and Gibb make for entertaining viewing. Bell’s nurse is exaggerated, crass and confronting; whereas Gibb is shy and polite, albeit increasingly frustrated.

Eventually, Gibb warms to Bell and they erupt in a frenzied song-and-dance number, their contrasting performances finally, if only briefly, synchronising. Unfortunately, their affinity for one another feels more like a mechanism of plot than a genuinely blossoming friendship. However, moments like this in isolation are fantastic to watch, with enough energy to bypass the stilted scene development.

The next section takes place at a beach where two lifeguards shoot the breeze, talking about life, morning naps and the size (and weight) of their penises. Ella Kamer plays Will, the obnoxious, sleazy lifeguard who has rocked up to work hungover, which seems, by the frustration of Sinead Mulcahy as co-worker Harry, to be a fairly standard state of affairs. These two establish a highly entertaining rapport and maintain an assured buoyancy throughout their twenty minutes of inane conversation. The sheer charisma of Kamer and Mulcahy cement this section as the highlight of Elbow Lotion, taking full advantage of a script less focused on narrative and more on their relationship.

Finally, we get a backyard barbecue with Lorna (Katie Treasure) and Jordan (Cindy Jiang), who can’t even get the barbecue to work. The reluctant barbecue fuels their gentle teasing and playfulness and slowly as an audience we discover the intimacy of a comfortable relationship, where familiarity means more than overt gestures of care. Treasure and Jiang feed off each other with contrasting performance styles, with Lorna’s goofy characterisation offset by Jordan’s deadpan nonchalance. Jiang’s ability to craft such a compassionate, friendly character whilst retaining a subdued delivery is impressive and disarming.

As a whole, (un)Australian is a mixed bag, but each section contains meaningful insight into an ongoing legacy of cultural identity crisis. Morita and Cowen have lived up to the remarkable if understated reputation of FLW.

Linus Tolliday

Four Letter Word Theatre’s production of (un)Australian ran from 2 – 4 May in the Guild Theatre.

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