Longtime collaborators Susie Dee and Patricia Cornelius return to the Melbourne stage with a double-bill of Cornelius’ plays Love (2005), and Shit (2015), presented by fortyfivedownstairs. It’s all you could ask for: both award winning plays, by award winning artists, and on their way to the Teatro Biennale di Venezia – the first time any australian artist has been invited.

Textually, Love and Shit make a lot of sense as a double bill, they’re single act plays with a great deal of overlapping focus; they both exist in the same dog-eat-dog world. In Love, characters Annie (Carly Sheppard) and Tanya (Tahlee Fereday), make a pact to work together and climb out of – what is seemingly –a state of entrenched poverty. They have a love for eachother, even as they are physically and emotionally very different; Annie is open and expressive, whereas Tanya is stoic beyond imagining. Their relationship and operation is soon threatened by an addict Annie meets while Tanya is away, presumedly in prison, called Lorenzo (Benjamin Nichol). The love between Annie and Tanya, and Annie and Lorenzo, gradually erodes. It’s hard not to say that Shit is somewhat an inversion of this: where Love is full of hope, hope that then withers, Shit makes clear from the beginning that Sam (Peta Brady), Bobby (Sarah Ward), and Billy (Nicci Wilks), don’t hope for much, and instead have become more and more hardened throughout their lives. There isn’t a glimmer of hope as the three discuss everything from hating their mothers, fighting strategies, to the frequency they say “Fuck”. It’s even questionable whether there’s anything beyond a light fondness between each of them, the closest they get to expressing love in the meat of the play is right after Billy beats up Sam for calling her a slut. Instead, it is only when their togetherness is threatened by authority do we see the heart and love these characters have for each other, only then does the facade of brutishness they perform as a defence mechanism come down. There may not quite be hope, but there is love – a love that grows rather than fades.

At their best, Love and Shit are deeply affecting plays, abundantly laden with raucous comedy, and small but significant moments that are heartening – moments that are earned by Cornelius, Dee and their cast. The cast put on a mostly good show, with only a few moments that are either clumsy or mildly cringey (numerous chemistry-less love scenes between Annie and Tanya). Particular standouts are Ward, who provides us with a truly charming and controlled Bobby, and Nichol, whose enigmatic and lecherous portrayal of Lorenzo immediately brings much-needed energy by the time of his delayed entrance.

Andy Turner’s lighting design illuminates the fortyfivedownstairs stage deftly, while Marg Horwell’s designs set up spaces that work to the proxemics of each play. For Love, a raised square platform that projects the claustrophobia of the space inhabited by the characters, and for Shit, a long raised ledge. This wall in particular allows for very different feelings depending on how far along this ledge the three place themselves from one another.

Unfortunately, Dee’s use of transitional movements is often questionable, or at least clumsily executed. Anna Liebzeit’s textural score and songs being repeatedly and sharply faded out when the actors have found their places for the next scene comes across a bit amateurish. The content of these transitions as well is peculiar, I think maybe it works in Love, and really doesn’t in Shit. It makes sense on some level to have them; Cornelius’ vignetted writing style requires some interstice. So, these movement sequences end up seeming mostly pragmatic choices, but – more often than not – what happens in them either deters from or distracts from the play. In Love, these transitions immediately slow down what is otherwise a very fast paced and frenetic play, and makes for a nice moment of stillness, but I wonder whether the trees-swaying-in-the-breeze movements of these transitions provides anything a blackout couldn’t. In Shit, the characters do a number of things in these transitions, sometimes they just move to a new position, but mostly they move into some formation, and then perform paranoia, as lights shoot past them. I’m inclined to think from the promotional material that those lights are trains, but I doubt that’s important. What is important is that the vulnerability they show in these transitions, while being a very earnest portrayal, cuts away at the power the play brings in it’s ending, as we see those very displays of fear, panic, and anxiety littered throughout these transitions leading up to that revealing moment.

Love and Shit are good plays at an inimitable theatre in fortyfivedownstairs, and for whatever flaws are performances worth seeing. Besides, more important than anything I have to say about it, the audience were enraptured; it was often hard to tell where one laugh ended and another began.

Arthur Knight

fortyfivedownstair’s production of LOVE runs from 23 May – 9 June and SHIT from 29 May – 9 June at fortyfivedownstairs.