Jess and Joe Forever – Zoe Cooper revealed on the Norfolk Broads. (Theatre Review)

Jess and Joe Forever

Sugary Rum Productons in association with 25A Belvoir downstairs.

13 – 30 March. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Kate Williams

In Jess and Joe Forever, Zoe Cooper addresses the problem Philosophy has had with friendship for so long. That is, is friendship a relation based on sameness or difference, utility or love? In what way does it differ from fraternity? This problem found its origin in the famous Aristotelian claim: “My friends, there are no friends.” It was Derrida who suggested friendship, rather than being defined by close political relations, informs them. This is closer to Zoe Cooper’s position. Her Jess (a sublime Julia Robertson) and Joe (a wonderful Nyx Calder) become friends in the ‘political’ sense – two outsiders find each other – after they are geographical soul mates. Joe and Jess are not brought together by a foundational rationality but by the way each tests the other at their limits. Able to communicate via shared language and construction of reality via language, Joe and Jess share a world that is defined by the horizons of existence and then the other transcends it. Jess is the leaning out and over for Joe and Joe is that for Jess. Since whatever is beyond the limits of my horizon is undetermined, this future introduced by the friend is absolute. Call it fascination, call it admiration, determine it as you like, Zoe Cooper sees with great clarity, friendship has the power to create worlds, and it does not necessarily need to become love.

Similarities exist between Pig and Runt in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs. However, for Enda Walsh there was no hope for binary identified friends to transcend the imposition of a ‘straight’ adolescence. Zoe Cooper is more hopeful. She places her (b)oy and (g)irl in Norfolk and forces them to swim, work and play in the Norfolk Broads. There are no decent reeds to hide behind, therefore Jess and Joe are more prepared for the problems of the world than Pig and Runt ever were; more exposed. To return to Derrida, Zoe Coopers Joe and Jess are a “way of loving” and “an act before being a situation.” Director Shaun Rennie uses the playground to retain the connection to childhood that informs all the actions he calls forth in his young cast. His direction is immaculate here, focusing on nuances and subtleties that evoke connection and warmth in the audience. So strong is Shaun Rennie’s direction, we find it difficult to get a sense that Jess and Joe Forever could be staged on a larger platform.

Inside of this, appropriately careful attention has been paid to the county of Norfolk. (In)Famous for its flatness, and essential to a strong sense of the play, Isabel Hudson uses the swing set in sand to conjure the sense of flat-but-for-man-made structures. A small single line chalk drawing graces the back of the stage conjuring the village. It’s completely flat but for houses and the odd, rare tree. Benjamin Brockman’s always stellar lighting efforts grace the changing cycles of the stage with a gentle evocation of an outside vista, adding gravitas to image and structure. Australian’s intuitively understand flat landscapes in which there is no place to hide. Managed by Alexandra Moon, the set offers a beautiful connection to the scenery so essential to the crux of the play.

Time and zeitgeist are held inside sound, via Ben Pierpoint’s designed sound and Robert Maxwell’s efforts as voice and dialect coach properly locate the production in the relatively small temporal space it occupies. Carefully managed and produced by Gus Murray, we are fully and properly transported to the playwright’s creation by this production of Jess and Joe Forever.

Shaun Rennie calls forth engaging, complicated performances from his young and very talented cast. He is intuitively aware that the play comes alive in Zoe Coopers ability to present adolescent ripening as a conduit for perceptions and behaviors of parents and neighbors. Through the kid’s interactions with each other, he uses constancy to ground the changing young people inside unchanging bodies. For Zoe Cooper transitions, representations, and the way that each are evoked through overarching narratives form the framework for a very normal adolescent tale plonked on a piece of land that hides nothing. Education, that which is given, that which is taken away and that which is thrust upon these kids become the basis for the changes we (as the witness) naturally hook into. These two performances successfully give us a sense of transition without the clumsy addition of empirical proof. This, of course, is essential to Zoe Cooper’s point. It is beautifully and powerfully wrought by Shaun Rennie.

Julia Robertson is a standout as Jess. Her Jess is precocious, adventurous, nervously wild, and immediately attracted to another who might have a big secret similar to her own. We meet her ‘hiding’ in the reeds besides the Norfolk Broads; an action that will easily reveal her. For Julia Robertson, this Jess courts engagement, seeks it out. Her true friend is an ideal image of her own self whereupon the absolute hope of survival opens a future that can be. For Julia Robertson living this, discovering this forces Jess into becoming a great friend. A true friend.

Nyx Calder is sensational as Joe. Reverential, essentially mysterious and charming, they portray Joe as living with information the world can’t understand. A deep core of refusal exists inside Nyx Calder’s Joe, what some might call “a stand” for themselves. Joe backs Joe, Nyx Calder backs Joe, Joe backs Nyx Calder and Nyx Calder backs Nyx Calder. This complicated and beautiful weaving makes for an entirely fresh performance that plays strongly into Zoe Coopers original creation, but equally presses against the limits of theatrical performance.

This production of Jess and Joe Forever is another stellar offer in the 2019 25A program for Belvoir. Subtle and beautiful, it is a production one needs to reach for, but all theatre is that anyway, is it not? This is a delicate creation, made by beautiful creatives working together with an exciting respect for each other.