Air – Grieving births new fathers, new histories. (Theatre review)
13 – 30 June 2018, Old 505 Theatre
Images: Mansoor Noor
For writer Joanna Erskine and through her director Anthony Skuse, Air is a departure as well as a homecoming. Through the vehicle of grief (another kind of birth process) an inverted Oedipus mythic melodrama unfolds around Annabel (the endlessly watchable Eloise Snape) who presents a contemporary Hamlet in her being a modern day intellectual – introverted, brooding, indecisive – as a mechanism of an unconscious displacement well known to Freudians. This mythology, in dire need of the cleanup it’s receiving on Sydney independent stages, is resonating with female writers particularly (I’m thinking specifically of Melita Rowston’s Between The Streetlight and the Moon for its relationship to creativity and Noelle Janaczewska’s Good With Maps for its connection between fathers and exploration) and their directors inside a Sydney well into its process of throwing off the mantle of its cultural fathers, London and New York. Connection between these three plays is the search inside an enormity (death, constellations and uncharted terrain) for the connection with a sanctified father-symbol properly culturally embodied in the Oedipus mythology but specifically embodied later in the more modern Hamlet which clads into the family narrative highly articulated astronomical observations. For some (seemingly specifically) female Sydney writers, act and knowledge are related in a tragic constellation which resonates with their directors. Grand narratives unfold in small spaces in front of silently engaged yet highly emotionally and intellectually participatory audiences.
Anthony Skuse is (therefore) in his element when directing Joanna Erskine’s words splayed out across the face of Eloise Snape inside the made space of The 505 Theatre in Newtown. Microphones deliver voice then swing in air (Air) while the ghosts of a thousand versions of the story of what it is to be human circle a room of people seeking to engage and be engaged. Annabel is Oedipus, Hamlet, Zadie and a woman running from and to her father’s death. Like the Hamlet mythologies Joanne Erskine and Anthony Skuse are not the only one’s who know their cultural father is dead, it is also our cultural fathers who mysteriously know they are dead if not exactly how they died. This lies in contrast to the father from the Freudian dream who doesn’t know that he is dead – and it is this excessive knowledge that draws parallels with the minimal dramatic flair of Annabel. Melodrama always involves some unexpected and excessive knowledge possessed not by the hero, but by their other passed on at the end in the final melodramatic reversal. This is opposed to tragedy which occurs as a seismic event grounded in misrecognition or ignorance.
Herein lies an interesting problem for contemporary theatre makers in Sydney; the enigma of knowledge. How is it possible that the whole psychic economy of a situation radically changes not when the heroine directly learns something (some long repressed secret) but when she gets to know that the other (whom she mistook for ignorant) also knew it all the time and just pretended not to know to keep the appearances? As a young feminist slowly discovers that men already know they don’t deserve what they have, but they capitulate to culture for thousands of previously unknown reasons, so theatre makers in Sydney are starting to realise their fathers (Freud, Shakespeare, London, New York etc.) are not the myths of their namesake. This transformation is being led by female writers and those working with them as their Hamlet experience (their journey two and from their fathers) unfolds differently to that of their capable brothers.
For Annabel the father is he who becomes one who knows very well what he is doing, and, nonetheless, he does it. This journey through grief starts with cynicism and becomes its radical opposite. For example, Annabel’s father might have thought that although what I am about to do will have catastrophic consequences for his well-being and for the well-being of those who are nearest and dearest to him, he nonetheless simply has to do it on account of the inexorable ethical injunction. This split is not only the split between the domain of the pathological (of wellbeing, pleasure, profit etc.) and the ethical injunction. It can also be the split between the moral norms that I usually follow and then unconditional injunction I feel obliged to obey – such as the deadlock of Abraham who knows what it will mean to kill his only son and yet resolves to do it anyway. Men are not men if they step outside of the hero’s journey – they become some other Foucauldian yet-to-be-properly-determined Other. Those Others and Women are change agents leading the way in Sydney to an understanding of what it is to claim the death of our cultural fathers.
Air is a beautifully understated example of the contemporary theatrical spirit that engulfs our Sydney stages. Ephemeral, exquisite, flawed and divine, its dark wit and magic realism merge properly with the Australian gothic aesthetic – wait for the images that come alive in your mind when you hear what can happen in a backyard tomato garden! Eloise Snape beautifully encapsulates the enormity of the heroine’s journey while retaining the delicate intimacy of a lone soul working in a studio late at night. Tel Benjamin is the modern day tragic hero personified, also alone, living with his mother, lamenting the passing of The Father. David Lynch is the spiritual embodiment of the father we thought we knew and the father we take with us moving forward and Suzanne Pereira soulfully demonstrates the tragedy of those who love us and watch our dark night of the soul. Diana Mclean is particularly enthralling as Mabel, the invisible She tied to outdated myths.
Anthony Skuse ties everything together with his carefully selected band of talented creatives who bring the 505 Theatre Space alive with this beautifully written text. Air is a fine example of delicate beauty Sydney-siders are now so used to on our stages. When you go, take all your friends. Theatre like this will resonate between you and forge closer alliances.
 Zadie; Melita Rowston’s beautiful heroine performed by Lucy Miller in Between The Streetlight and the Moon at Kings Cross Theatre by Mophead Productions in 2016.
A woman running from and to her father’s death; Noelle Janaczewska’s beautiful heroine performed by Jane Phegan in Good With Maps at Kings Cross Theatre by Siren Theatre Company in 2016.