Year of the Family – Embrace the darkness of familial love. (Theatre Review)
Year of the Family
Tooth and Sinew at the Kings Cross Theatre from 10 – 20 February
1994 was declared by the United Nations General Assembly to be The International Year of The Family. As if Freud had planned it himself, the declaration posed immediate threats to liberal sensibilities: would such a declaration offend those who choose to live outside of a family structure; what is the point of a year of the family; how does one celebrate such a thing; and what is a family anyway? The declaration produced great debate, to which Anthony Neilson’s dark voice was added, that finally came up with the startling proclamation that the family is a fundamental institution of human society. Beneath the facade of simplicity such a declaration implies, lies the terrifying realization that the family IS a fundamental institution of human society and that this is assured, regardless of the health of the family. However, below even that assumption, is the reverse thought transaction that shockingly justifies and allows for even the most dysfunctional of families to be acknowledged equally as the right/white perfect nuclear family. As Anthony Neilson implies in Year of the Family, society springs from all families – not just capitalist-identified hetero-normative white ones. We then start to see the etymology of all discussions about family and marriage stemming from the importance of this one declaration.
Which brings me to the gifted sense of timing Tooth and Sinew establish by bringing such a dark play to the foreground in 2016, in Mardi Gras time. If the fear of the conservative right is that gay marriage will produce more gay people, it is a backward acknowledgement that the nuclear family in all its forms, is a fundamentally incestuous force that provokes cravings that impact on all of society. Conservatives are as right to be fearful of the LGBT family as feminists have always been of the hetero-normative nuclear family. Families are fucked, says Anthony Neilson, gloriously and delightfully fucked, but bringing that awareness into our vocabulary includes our only real possibly liberation from the families viscous influence. A spurious liberation, a false one, a fundamental lie; but a lie we can endure that includes the fecundity of possibility. When Anthony Neilson invites us to not only examine the incestuous entrails of the family, but to laugh at their darkest secrets, he gives us cause to celebrate as well.
So the clever folk of Tooth and Sinew recognize the political power of Neilson’s declaration. Their production of Year of the Family is no turgid sinking into the endless competition of “my father screwed me more than yours screwed you,” rather is lays its emphasis on the more dangerous aspect of Neilson’s work- the comedic timing and its treatment of incest infused familial love. Director Richard Hilliar makes caricatures of his cast, overemphasized child-adults seeking to radically play out their passion for that imposing talisman of the family, The Father. Mothers are talked about but absent (almost) their imposing force looming in the shadows extending from the great woman-centric retreat into privacy. Yet Hilliar further complicates this recognizable trope by subduing the roles of the fathers to recipients of reactive abuse hurled by their children. The fathers of Year of the Family are Brendan Miles and David Woodland. Brendan Miles is a disarming wall of silence, a stranger with a phantasmic opportunity in his hands with which (like all fathers) he ends up doing his own thing. And yet (unlike all fathers) he does it with quiet resilience a gentle force refusing to impact those around him. He is posited against the other father, played by David Woodland, in a brilliant stroke of casting, whose very presence constantly interrupts our rapidly changing opinions about him. Woodland’s discombobulating combination of charisma and awkwardness bring a strength and freshness to Neilson’s words, adding another layer of complexity to a figure about which we could easily have made many assumptions. It is up to Woodland to provide the plays punch line, and he does this with such power that not only is his role exemplified in his final appearance, but the entire play is turned into a new thing.
Against the disarming imposition of these fathers, are the children, played by Nicole Wineberg, Brooke Ryan and Peter-William Jamieson. Brooke Ryan’s rebellious Claire, playing out her own subconscious power game becomes the stabilising force precisely because her battles are buried. Ryan plays her mostly calm, led by a dysfunctional desire, a pawn in other people’s games, and yet equally the sun around which this very disturbing family is allowed to orbit. She is a strange, dark voice of warm reason, combined with a dangerous addiction to the darker side of life that forces a confrontation with the real for her ego (and all our egos) and yet equally provides the fantasy that will become the foundation of this family. Peter-William Jamieson’s Sid on the other hand, is the most recognisable trope of masculinity, and calls forth another great performance that includes the seeds of its tumultuous transformation. Richard Hilliar has not only cast this production well, he’s nurtured great performances that are a perfect combination of narrative trajectory and character complexity.
Against all this, the performance that packs the real punch that drives the darker aspects of Neilson’s wicked point is Nicole Wineberg, who blossoms under Hilliar’s direction, as the most dysfunctional daddies girl your ever likely to meet. If Neilson is unsure about Fliss, Nicole Wineberg isn’t, presenting a power packed performance that wisely eschews tumid emotionality in favour of indulgence in the grotesque that borders on the gothic. It’s a marvellous performance, a perfect exemplification of the female hysteric as she tumbles into her own psychic depths only to find she doesn’t exist. While Wineberg never feels entirely real, she equally never feels entirely false, delicately teetering on the brink of an either or abyss that threatens to engulf her.
One of the great pleasures in this production is the use of lighting, sound and staging to evoke counter point in the transitional spaces. Teagan Nicholls Sound, Liam O’Keefe’s lighting and Ash Bell’s design are perfectly incorporated into Richard Hilliar’s vision for the dark undercurrents he explores in the simple moments of scene transition. One gets a strong sense of watching the subconscious emerge from the shadows as staging becomes the facilitator for spectres unseen yet always felt.
2016 is turning out to be a good year for theatre in Sydney. I’ve already seen many good productions and am thrilled to be exploring all they have to say. However, Year of the Family stands out as one of the best and will be very difficult to top in the months to come.