Narrow as the Line – Nathan Finger writes, directs and gets you thinking. (Sydney Fringe Festival Theatre review)
One of the quaint things about the cry of the rich that they are winning the battle of the survival of the fittest (an old Banker/business cry left over from the end of the last century – think people like Jeffery Skilling and Rupert Murdoch) is that the “fitter” someone gets by these standards, the more material help they need in order to “survive”. Rupert Murdoch may think he has a talent for survival, but given his resources, and his history, we can safely assume any remotely competent half-wit could have achieved what he did. What he has never had to do, is fight for his survival. The bulk of people who want to talk about a battle of survival, never had to engage in one in their life. Getting up thirty minutes before everyone else to “work out”, does not an evolutionary genius make.
Given the need for luxuries that go with success, one might be forced to suggest the more you need, the further away you are from winning the battle for survival of the fittest, because surely that is the very definition of need; You can’t operate properly without certain things, certain luxuries. Surely the winner of this “battle for survival” is the individual who needs almost nothing and can still feed their children and teach them how to feed themselves without forming dependence on too many things. The individual clinging to wealth and trying to destroy anyone who comes near them is weakened by their need, not made stronger by their possessions.
All this was going through my head as I was watching the wonderful play by local play write Nathan Finger, Narrow as the Line, currently showing at the King Street Theatre as part of the Sydney Fringe festival. Narrow as the Line is a play about the mental fatigue of war, and its repetitious story, playing itself out over and over again through time. It was while I was watching these men, drowning under the mental weight of losing so many of their friends in pointless struggles they could never win, I came face to face with the reality that in the forced, false circumstances of war, the fit die alongside the unfit, the worthy alongside the unworthy and the gifted along with the ordinary man. Men and women are sent to their deaths in war, regardless of wealth, ideology or political persuasion, and it has nothing to do with their ability to avoid it.
But that is what is so clever about Nathan Finger’s play. It’s not “just another war story” and yet it is the same war story that we know and have seen over and over through the years and expect into the future. Finger places a microscope on the minds of three officers, Parsons (Nicholas Richard), Cohen (Ryan Knight) and Clarke (Logan McArthur) and we see the distortions and desperations being in such an extreme environment creates. The play starts with Cohen and Parsons returning from a day in the trenches at the very front line in WW1. Parsons has trench foot, and is hoping it turns gangrenous so that he might be sent home. “Without a foot?” Cohen asks him. “Better than without a head.” Is Parsons reply.
The men chatter back and forth, some with their daydreams that keep them sane, some with their misery that threatens to take them over. The first act uses witty and clever word play, tossed in by Finger, that will lead them to questioning their existence and purpose. “It’s raining” says Cohen. “What does the “it” mean?” “What?” says Parsons. Cohen repeats himself, “What does the “it” mean, in the sentence “It’s raining?” The men will talk this way, the infinitesimal analysis of words a metaphor for the infinitesimal examination of their lives. As if being so close to the front line that you hear the bombs shatter near your bed isn’t bad enough, the confined space, the close proximity of each other man, starts to drive the mind toward unhealthy fantasies and introspection. Deftly, Finger exposes the nuances of each of the minds of his characters via clever word play that at times dances around the stage.
This spell is broken by the appearance of Col. McGrath (Sydney Abba) and this entrance transports the play and its surreal surrounds. While Col. McGrath is a comical stereotype of the mindless British officer so content to send men to their pointless deaths, the appearance of Abba (a female) playing this role changes the tone of the piece. None of the gravity is lost, but the absurdity is highlighted. Abba is an excellent actor, and plays her part so well, we are fully and properly transported to the alternate reality of war, the alternate reality the hyper intense environment gives way to.
One of Parsons’s tasks is to write to the families of the dead to inform them, and when he wakes up from his nights sleep at the start of act two, he wakes up drowning in a sea of death notifications, too numerous for him to write home about. He drinks, as others cry or obey as over and over the meaninglessness of their actions and the poverty of their worth become more and more evident. This war is the same as all wars, is one of Fingers many messages, and this is brought out through little odes to other great war’s, war films, songs and books. War is often used as a metaphor, but within Narrow as the Line, it is a cycle that interrupts natural behaviors of a human creature. Finger retains his Oscar Wilde wit in the second act, but it is sparse, pared down, as hungry and malnourished as the men and women we call heroes.
There are many reasons to see Narrow as the Line; the fine acting, the clever, witty verbiage, the layers of time laid out upon each other like puff pastry. But the main reason to see it is for Nathan Finger’s taut grip on the material and his complex way of looking at the world. You may not come out with the same messages I did, but you will be thinking about Narrow as the Line for a long time.