Animal/People – Brooke Robinson and our psychic shadows. (Theatre Review)

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Rock Surfers Theatre Company

29 April – 16 May – You can grab your tickets here.

Animal/People has many interesting facets to its beauty – and this is a deeply beautiful production; beautiful as a sensory pleasure that gives deep satisfaction to the mind. The best kind of beauty. The lighting, the sound, the set, the direction, the performances are disparate voices conjoining to create a profound whole, but what makes them extra special, is their lilting dangle from the structural tree created by Brooke Robinson whose courageous words have given inspiration to such potent and independent narratives that bow to her strong vision and story trajectory. Robinson is an oblique story teller, a writer who understands what we say is usually nothing more than a vehicle for what we can’t say.

Structurally she is poetic, dancing, emblematic. Her words flow gently, around distended and violent subject matter, as if she were examining it from within, as if it were a world she understands as the every day, and she writes about the violence and the ugliness in people from the completely ordinary machinations of the daily struggle to be human. Her play reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s examination of the Eichmann trial, and the horrible conclusion she drew, that evil is not a perverse and unstoppable monster that takes hold of us, but an unchecked fictive we each have the terrible propensity to carry out every day. This is Brooke Robinson’s world also, a world where people who love can hate, people who deal every day with the responsibilities to those around them, can shirk them out of panic at a crucial moment, and ableism is masked as self-analysis and a misrepresented as an attempt to grow.  Brooke Robinson knows you. And she knows how deeply unpleasant you can be.

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Given the subject of Brookes accomplished text, it is no wonder James Dalton agreed to direct her play, and equally no wonder talented creative’s like Ben Brockman, Dylan Tonkin, James Brown and Tom Hogan agreed to contribute their special brand of theatrical awareness to her fecund and slithering text. James Dalton is one of Sydney’s most exciting directors, always using the surface as a vehicle for what lies beneath, intuitively in touch with the peculiar strangeness that comes from social interaction at every level. Collaborating with Robinson, he is perfectly at home peering through the cracks of life’s pathetic facades in order to highlight the way social mores stand guard at the protective gate that keeps us from ourselves. He brings together a unique band of creative’s to fulfil Robinson’s vision, and turns each strong narrative toward the other in a reflexive exercise that never threatens to drown out Robinson’s voice – something that might have happened to her delicate poetry in the hands of a less experienced director dealing with so many strong voices.

Ben Brockman positions a series of fluorescent lights above the sparse set as if they were a guide of sorts along a dark highway leading to a creepy psychic darkness. The lights are their own animal, both man-made and seeming independent, keeping the light low on a face, then exploding into an argent, humming blue pallor that acts remarkably as both illumination on that which we see, and a further layer of protection over that which we hide. Under Dalton’s direction, every aspect of the narrative is its own vehicle for exposure of the hidden, so Brockman’s lights, surrounded by Robinson’s words, serve to question the relationships between confidence /belief and consistency/logic. Equally thrilling is Dylan Tonkin’s set that, despite its jarring angles that crash together, acts in a parabolic way, at once cornering and capturing the actors while equally reflecting the authenticity of the lights and sound as if to expand into a broader world than its smashed corner implies. However, true to Dalton’s aesthetic Tonkin provides no relief in his expanse, rather a magnification of the universe that seethes within each of us, as if we are all nothing but a conflux of points passing through focus.

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Include in this addling psychic experience the sound design by James Brown and Tom Hogan which insinuates its own eerie dimension into the structural flow indicating in itself the manipulations that have taken place by the characters throughout the play and points to the wider psychological impact of the audiences confidence in their own experience of the narrative. Through the addition of Brown an Hogan’s sound, the story becomes less an excursion through Robinson’s combined details than a precise allegory and a genuine challenge to the ongoing machinations of the theatre experience  – kind of like an excursion into social criticism and mass psychology, a broader perspective that Robinson intends and allows for in the structure of her writing. Carefully thought out sound builds its own allegory, and properly immersed in a text has a transporting effect that has the ability to act on the audience’s experience almost subconsciously. Brown and Hogan’s gift to the audience is that experience.

Among all this intensity, hover Georgia Adamson and Martin Crewes, humans completely lost in the sensory experience of their own enormous interaction with the world around them, both the axis and the orbit of Robinson’s words. Both these actors have a powerful stage presence that compellingly grows as the audiences senses become overwhelmingly involved in the production. So much happens around the pair, but they keep the anecdotal focus on the words, so that all the exciting elements work together to bring us always back to the narrative trajectory. Each play characters that appear pleasant and unpleasant, and they each bring a depth and intricacy to their roles that allow for the full direction of Robinson’s point to lead the way.

It’s no secret that I’m a fan of many of the creatives involved with this endeavour. I’m one for courageous theatre, theatre that steps out of the main stream and leaves one breathless with the intensity of what it inspires inside the psyche. Bearing witness to the work of everyone involved in this production team, including dramaturg Jennifer Medway, producer Cat Dibey, production manager Larna Burges Munro and the all important stage manager Tara Ridley, is a thrilling ride that continues long after the pleasures to be had at the delightful Bondi location are far behind. However, what I didn’t expect was the beautiful words of Brooke Robinson, a playwright with whom I was previously unfamiliar, and powerful strength of a text that can comfortably include these enormous talents in its fold and yet remain light, delicate and darkly wreathed.

Highly Recommended.