Russell – Sydney Fringe (Theatre Review)
This show has completed its run at the fringe. You can find out more about it here.
There is a forgotten role for anxiety and nothingness in contemporary theatre, tapping more into the cognitive power of trauma rather than focusing on the psychological underpinnings of a key protagonist. In this way, theatre should stir people up, rather than put them to sleep by creating key images we will not forget rather than points of connection that serve nothing other than make us feel warm and vaguely intellectually engaged. Freud can be blamed for the now long-established habit of seeking to understand the psychology of a character, rather than a more outward focus in performance on the audience response, but he can’t carry the blame alone. Sure, we need to connect with characters, but what theatre does with that connection and how it is wielded is equally as important.
In this way Valentin Lang’s small fringe play Russell plays with the idea of connection and disruption. Russell is a stereotyped, unpleasant character, brash, reeking of white male privilege, and always hurting those he loves as a matter of contrived authenticity of feeling rather than lack of self-reflection. More interesting than him and his psychological relationships to himself as played out in those around him is the absurdity Valentin Lang writes into the play. Russell might be unpleasant, but we are not forced to engage to deeply with his ‘life lessons’ by virtue of a transference to a series of shock images where we are focused on the effect of Russell’s selfishness on those around him. A tragic clown in beautiful song, a woman begging for the death of a pet and the eventual death of the pet itself all come together metaphorically to tie us to the consequences of Russell’s selfishness rather than keeping us focused on his redemption.
Written like a series of one-liners in a standup routine, Valentin Lang succeeded in making Russell a very funny, deeply absurd tragi-comedy about the complications of life and the way that we recover from the hurts inflicted upon us by those we love. The opening scene sees Russell take a pet for himself that becomes a metaphor for a psychological unpleasantness that hurts everyone, but it is only in death that the pet starts to look like part of Russell himself; The rest of the play is very devoted to the people around him slighted by his behavior. Valentin Lang has written a silly, funny fringe show that reminds us the psychology of certain individuals is overplayed and dull, and that absurdity has the power to interrupt a sanitized self-awareness that results in assuagement.
Lots of fun with enough shock value to force a deep internalised thought process.