• 01 May 2011 /  Reviews 6 Comments

    There are many reasons to admire this new Australian play – and its production. Lachlan Philpott’s sensitive and engaging text and the bright performances of its cast being the first to come to mind. This is my first chance to come to Philpott’s writing ‘at strength’. I saw Bison at Belvoir Downstairs a couple of years back: it was okay but essentially a fairly early revived work. If the more recent Colder was anywhere near as good as Silent Disco is, I can understand why interest has been brewing.

    There is a lot of new playwriting out there, but very little of it captures today’s world so vividly and with such compassion and humour. Not just any world in this case: but that of today’s teenagers. For all the right reasons, this experience in the theatre made me feel rather old. Okay, we all know what its like to be a kid. But in today’s world? I thought I might have had some idea, but no I did not. How times have changed. Growing up has never been easy, but with so many absent and/or damaged parents, no apparent ethical framework on which to hang decisions, lots of freedom but nothing much to do with it, teenage years today come across as unreasonably tough.

    Meyne Wyatt (Squibb) with Sophie Hennser (Tamara)

    Silent Disco is on a face of it a version of Romeo and Juliet. The boy Jasyn Donovan (aka Squid), played by Meyne Wyatt, is a Koori kid who lives with his brooding auntie. His girlfriend – of several ‘weeks, days and hours’ – is Tamara Brewster, played by Sophie Hennser. Tamara lives with her uncaring dad (who in later years has come out gay), and she meets with her problematic mother on the odd occasion. The parents are mere shadows in this drama, and that’s the point. The only adults to make their presence felt are Jasyn’s older brother, Dane (Kirk Page), who partway through the play gets out of jail; and a uniquely seasoned and caring school teacher, Ms Petchell (Camilla Ah Kin).

    What happens is the stuff of school-day life, the minutiae, the ups and downs in the classroom, the yard, and the stretching suburbia beyond. The plot is built on some classic devices: the brother’s return to the outside world turns it entirely upside down, and it’s all building to the school formal – but will we get there? Can first love ever get very far? And with so much going against it? What I really like about this script is how Philpott begins with a very standard storyline (so we are on a familiar track) but builds it into life – into three-dimensionality – with such attention to detail that we really are forced to look at the world afresh. I can’t say with any authority that this is how young people today (from this particular world) think and speak. But it rang true to me; and on the night I attended, the teenagers in the audience looks to be giving the show the thumbs up.

    Lachlan Philpott

    What’s really special is Philpott’s handling of language – not just the jargon and vocabulary, but the way thought itself is organised these days. Nothing linear left in today’s world – language is mashed. And regarding the play’s title: yes indeed: who really knows what’s going inside the heads of kids these days?

    Philpott’s script has been embraced with commitment and verve from the cast. Mayne Wyatt brought himself to notice in The Brothers Size. Sophie Hennser as Tamara is particularly astonishing: the story is told mostly from her perspective, and the emotional and intellectual adventure this young actress embraces  (with such confidence) is pretty massive. Kirk Page, as the brother is sexy and threatening. Camilla Ah Kin’s compassionate optimism as the school teacher is beautiful to watch. Plus she gets a chance to ‘play up’ in one adorable scene as a local check-out chick.

    I’ve mentioned how Griffin is leading the way among the main companies in nurturing its relationship with audiences. So it’s no surprise to see artistic director Sam Strong himself posting comments on the website: “On Friday” Strong posted recently, “we had the company run of our next main season show, Silent Disco. Seeing the full work in front of its first official audience was a lovely reminder of the unique nature of new writing. In Silent Disco, Lachlan achieves three things that make new writing special. First, he reflects our contemporary world back at us. It’s refreshing to see a work so firmly located in the here and now of our very own Sydney. Secondly, Lachlan reflects that world in a way that makes us see it anew. Finally, Silent Disco transports us completely into someone else’s experience. It has been an unfortunately long time since I was a teenager but the beauty of the play (and what Associate Director Lee Lewis is doing with it) is that we all get swept up in the story of Tamara and Squid.” I totally agree.

    Kirk Page as Dane

    I can only cite a couple of slight imperfections in the writing, and I hope Philpott takes it as a compliment that the best I can do is nitpick. One is that Ms Petchell herself does not go on quite enough of a journey in her own right. Ideally we should see her too end up in a different place. And the other is that the matter of Tamara’s dad having AIDs. It’s a bit blurry in the facts area – presumably he’s living with HIV illness (only now being diagnosed) which is not the same thing. On the matter of Ms Petchell, we hardly notice because as a character she is so beautifully drawn, and thoughtfully realised by Ah Kin. Regarding the AIDs stuff, yes I know that kids today are ill informed and confused – but how the subject is handled in this play (easily fixed – next draft – a few new lines) is not helpful.

    Camilla Ah Kin as Ms Petchall

    Lee Lewis’s direction is confident and empathetic. Justin Nardella’s set is simple and groovy. Ross Graham’s imaginative lighting design a bargain for the price. Two quite new guys to the business and both definitely have what it takes. Sound design is by Stefan Gregory. Gregory has contributed to so many outstanding productions over the past few years, from The War of the Roses to The Wild Duck, it’s high time – in the very least – that I mentioned his name.

    Try and catch this show if you can: it’s what good Australian theatre today is all about!

    Posted by James Waites @ 12:25 pm

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6 Responses

  • Lachlan Philpott Says:

    Hi James,
    I want to thank you for your review of Silent Disco and for the blog you spend so much time on.
    I have a few things I want to say but I will try and be quick since it seems the discussion which has come out of The Business has tired you out.
    I am thrilled with the response to Silent Disco and thanks all who have supported it. Not all my plays have had such a response. I have been writing for some time and often it has felt like a struggle. I dont presume to think it should be any different, nobody asks me to write plays and I dont feel that I deserve to have a life as an artist.
    I feel strongly that we do need to have storis that are about the place we live in here and now. If as TW says, these are boring, perhaps that is a problem with our culture as much as our writing and we can use the arts a tool to bring change.
    What excites me most about the response to the play is that it has been popular with young audiences. The play has brought new people into the Griffin space and we can hope that they might decide to return to see more theatre…new Australian plays, adaptations, whatever appeals to them.
    As playwright, I am obsessed with how we develop new audiences. I wish we had more discussions in the sector about strategies relating to that and that companies were more mindful of it as well.
    In relation to your review and your comments about HIV.A paper by Alyson Campbell from Queens University Belfast is about to be published in The International Theatre Review which documents my work in relation to HIV. Most of my plays in some way have dealt with HIV/ AIDS and the fluidity of its precence in our society- whether it be the collective contemporary amnesia we seem to be experiencing now [Bison], the unspoken presence of an illness [Catapult] or the way people misunderstand diagnosis [Silent Disco].
    Noel Jordan’s comments on the HIV diagnosis in the introduction to the play might also be of some help here.
    The other thing I wanted to say that I found it interesting that in that long complex and vocab heavy post ‘The Business’ blog your comments about what was ‘good and what was not so good’ about my writing highlighted for me the absence of discourse we do have about contemporary Australian writing. When I am teaching writing, I try and encourage people to talk about what they respond to and how rather than what is good or not good.
    I never want any of my plays to be ‘good’. That seems to be a prosaic ambition frankly.

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  • James Waites Says:

    Hi Lachlan,

    thanks for dropping in. On the matter of HIV – I knew what you meant, and I know you know what you are writing about. I guess I was just wondering, without more packing around it, if it was helpful for Tamara to use the words AIDS in the careless way she does – even if, by that, you are alerting us to the fact that many young people are not adequately informed about the nature of this and other sexually transmitted diseases. It’s a tiny point and I may well not have been listening carefully. Perhaps I should have said that I would have liked to know more about Tamara’s father. To have a gay single Dad is very interesting, but he was a very vague and shadowy figure. Perhaps necessarily so: you can’t stop and make a speech at every corner in the road. Still – I am urging you on to formal perfection!!

    I am not tired of getting comments. I am rather delighted, after pitching reviews out there into the silence of cyberspace for so long now, that people at last have started to offer some feedback, Just tired of writing about The Business. In the big picture it is a minor event.

    I now have a draft down of my review of Baal – which I hope to get up tomorrow after I look at it again. It does raise the matter of new Australian writing v transcobobulations of other people’s work. I’m not against anything much, including these groovy new rewrites. But no one is going to convince me they are as hard to do as creating a new work from scratch. The gut=wrenching loneliness of the single idea from which a real new play begins.

    I guess the way I look at it, my view is go with the talent. We’re supporting talented directors by letting them do whatever the f*ck they want. If we have talented playwrights writing original material why can’t we support them also – all the way till their plays are up on the big stages, well-crafted and meaty enough to pull in crowds? There is an absence, I speculate, because I don’t think people running the bigger theatre companies really know how to grow good playwriting – despite the seeming dozens of people being flown in from England and well paid to show us how to do it (miaow – cat scratch!)

    I am certainly not seeing my life up there on stage these days very often. Not even anyone I know or read about in the newspapers or online – lol. That’s why I liked Silent Disco so much. Even if it was about kids, I felt it connected with my world. And I thought you showed me something I didn’t know. And you did that mostly through your wonderful use of language..

    On the matter of ‘good and not good’, it was probably a loose phrase. Maybe sometime I can get a better idea about the ways you have found to talk about such things.


  • Lachlan Philpott Says:

    I love what you just wrote James. I am always afraid of speaking up online but maybe that needs to change.

    I think the reason we do not get more of Tamara’s father Laurence in SD is because of the difficultites of doubling up actors. Too much of Kirk being Laurence and we might start to lose Dane. And in a sense this supports what you have just written about the bigger companies. If this play had a cast of 6 then you could do much more with it.

    Don’t get me wrong…I love Griffin and I love the intimate stage but there is an argument to say that if Australian playwrights who write new work know that this space is where it will be produced, [ or somewhere as small] so they think smaller than they could as well.
    I was making a crude analogy the other day comparing the music and theatre industries: Imagine if the local music industry only did covers of foriegn songs- the Simon Stone band did slick versions of Eurovision hits and the Tom All Wrighters just covered say, Beatles songs.
    Would people love it? Would they revolt? Would anyone care? Would they just hum along contentedly?
    I know there is an argument to say music is all just notes that have been played before and lyrics are just an arrangement of words but…lets face it James, cover bands suck.

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  • James Waites Says:

    If you get a play up at all, it’s got to be limited to four actors? That is shocking. All major playwrights of every previous era have been able to create scripts for larger casts than that. This is an artform/industry problem and a conversation is needed. One of several, but I think the status of the playwright is an important one and not to be brushed off with arguments about latest trends. I’ve got nothing against what Simon Stone and Tom Wright do, I just don’t see how it’s more important than what you – and other ‘originating’ playwrights – do. Cheers…

  • Lachlan Philpott Says:

    It doesn’t necessarily have to be four actors James. There is, however, a consistent sense from most in the industry that to make the play an attractive proposition for companies to program, the fewer actors the better. And evidently this is problematic for actors too!
    And I have nothing against Simon or Tom either, I am sorry if my comment seemed that way. In truth, I have found real inspiration in their work.
    I do have to say I find it problematic that Tom consistently says such negative things about Australian playwriting and playwrights. What does this achieve and how does it reflect on the company he works for? I mean if it is so bad and he is in that position, why doesn’t he do something about it?

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  • James Waites Says:

    I was just thinking how large casts used to be for Dorothy Hewett or Stephen Sewell etc. And you’re allowed to have a little dig at the guys who ‘translate’. We all need to talk more. We think not talking (or writing) is being nice, but it just all bottles up, emotions come out sideways, and we don’t ‘grow’ the culture.

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