Smudge – Disability and Trauma as a crises of language. (Theatre Review)



The Kings Fools and Bakehouse Theatre Company

Kings Cross theatre, May 27 – June 11 (You can grab your tickets here)

Images Liam O’Keefe

The crises of disability, as immediately obvious in the four opening words of this sentence, is one of language. According to his 2004 paper Trauma without Disability, Disability without Trauma: A disciplinary divide, James Berger argues that the principle contributor to this phenomena is trauma theories connection to the metaphor and disabilities ongoing work in disputing metaphors attributed to the disabled, regarding metaphor as “irredeemably tied to oppressive ideological systems.” Rachel Axler’s Smudge is an attempt to deal with this linguistic problem by representing the experience of two parents dealing with a severely disabled child and the associated suffering they experience because of an event. This event is real, it overwhelms them and their psyche or rather their cultures psyche as played out in them, is in some sense shattered. Nick (Kieran Foster) and Colby (Danielle Connor) are as excited as any parents at the forthcoming birth of their child, but when the baby is born comatose and on life support they are forced to confront societal expectations and the trauma of separation from the expectations that drove them toward child birth. Axler reinforces this trauma via the character Pete (Nick Hunter) who speaks only in clichés and imposes the authority of mother, tradition and dynasty upon the new parents.

However, for Nick and Colby, what is more traumatic than the event itself the battle they have within. It is important that we understand trauma (and disability) is not sacred. Trauma is secular. It is something that happens and there is no meaning attached to it. It has causes and it has consequences. These are social and personal and they have a devastating impact on existing symbolic resources and therefore we try to justify the traumatic event in terms of the sublime the sacred or the apocalyptic. It is what happened and it brings with it no frame. It is not tragic, involves no sacrifice and does not redeem. It is this aspect of their traumatic event that Colby and Nick have no language for and for which they are aggressively unprepared. For Nick, meaning is a journey into the higher ground, trying to be the joyous father, accepting his lot, learning about his new baby and what he can do for it. Colby’s journey will be much darker, as she searches for a secret communication from her challenging child, imposing upon it the misunderstood super powers of an alien – which the child is. The most evocative and fascinating aspects of Smudge become the moments when Rachel Axler is attempting to reveal Colby’s experience, and director Stephen Lloyd-Coombs uses Liam O’Keefe’s spectacular lighting to great affect here. As Colby stares into the cradle of her unwell newborn, the imposition the child can inflict on Colby’s life comes to a dark and dreadful light. Because Smudge is a lack comedy and because Sydney is swept up into the throes of the Vivid festival, the clever technique takes on a whole new perspective that won’t be lost on Syndey-siders.


But as we all know, plays with this emotional depth and theatrical complexity do not come easily, and Lloyd-Coombs is supported by a strong cast, tightly woven through each other, who portray very believable relationships with each other. Danielle Connor is a particular stand out as Colby, a woman on the edge in a universe that seems to deliver the great cosmic joke to her womb. The dark comedy of the piece, perfectly in alignment with the tropes of absurdism makes Colby’s journey all the more distressing, and Connor is a blank canvass upon which emotion sits eating its way into a woman who has no way of speaking even to herself. Kieran Foster is a strong and sturdy Nick, equal parts kindness and demand for recognition of his emotional achievements. He is a wonderfully tragic good man, another person struggling without words, performing at his best when he is trying to keep the tidal wave of a world from Colby’s shores. Nick Hunter is the comic hero of the play, delivering his tacky one liners with verve and middle class ferocity. He’s a great Pete a strangely captivating combination of so many men who can portray the clumsy social bungler and the nasty misogynist in one go. All of this is brought together with strength through Stephen Lloyd-Coombs direction and the very clever work of Liam O’Keefe(lights),  Michael Toisuta (sound), Elia Bosshard (designer) and Ella Butler (assistant designer). The cardboard box world the little family live in cleverly portray the transitory world this family are trapped in.

Smudge is only on for another night. Grab a ticket to it if you can.

Highly recommended.