Water – Mark Langham brings German Enlightenment to Sydney (Theatre Review)


New Blood Theatre and Where’s Harold Productions.

Find out more here.

(At the publishing of this review, this production has finished.)

In his director’s notes, Mark Langham describes an inability to forget Carl Hans Lody (Stephen Lloyd-Coombs) after reading about him. To underscore this, he cites the key incident Lody facing a firing squad filled with soldiers who ‘rather liked him.’ The way Mark Langham paints the picture, Carl Hans Lody is an ordinary man who wants to live an ordinary life except for one particular quality: he has a profound sense of duty which is underwritten by a remarkable sense of honour. Carl Hans Lody completely fulfils a Kantian definition of honour. That is, an action fulfilling an ethical duty has moral merit if it is performed from duty itself, despite the incentive making no difference to its administrative rightness. We have a blueprint here for a way of determining our own morality.

In the case of Mark Langhams hero (Mark Langham also writes Water) an action may be entirely inept, but if its an action fulfilling an ethical duty that is inspired by duty itself, one is presented with an almost angelic integrity that calls forth a response in other humans. To say an act is ‘right’ is merely that it conforms to a system of right one has chosen. For those of us fortunate enough to see Water, we find that Mark Langham presents his character sketch in such a way that we the audience feel enamored by the hapless spy ourselves. It does not necessarily follow that his failures make him attractive. Rather it is his sense of honour and duty that form bonds with the audience similar to those professed at the scene of his execution.

Consider then, as Mark Langham writes his character, a German in World War One walks among us indirectly embodying the moral incentive in Kant’s thinking in the realm of inner freedom, self-constraint and moral goodness. After the first World War, we know from history that Nazis exploited the sense Germans had that they were disproportionately vilified for the first world war. The Second World War revealed the head that grew after the first was cut off. AS Lody embodies a Kantian sense of personal moral code, under Mark Langham’s labours, Lody becomes a symbol of the impossibility of German enlightenment. To which Germany can we turn if we shoot Carl Hans Lody? In the rise of a fascist right today, which Carl Hans Lody have we shot?

So are the many interesting questions that forge their presence in the wonderful production Water currently showing at the New Blood Theatre in Kings Cross. Mark Langham’s beautiful play We are the Himalayas had a strong run in July this year when produced by Brave New Word Theatre Company, and he calls forth a strong production of his work again when Where’s Harold Theatre Company produce Water for the great pleasure of Sydney audiences.

However, what excites with this current production is the direction of Mark Langham, which almost steals the show away from his excellent writing. As a director, Mark Langham calls forth superb performances from his small cast, each up to the task of performing the vibrant, complex work that demands so much energy and potency. From casting decisions (this is one of those superb productions where casting really shines) through to accent work, the small ensemble work their way through the beautiful words with verve, wit and the kind of pace that gives the story its proper opportunity to expand.

Centre stage and playing the (in)famous Carl Hans Lody himself, is Stephen Lloyd-Coombs who offers us his extraordinary character with warmth and generosity of spirit., It’s a charming and delightful performance, evoking all the strange energies required to have us all fall in love with this curious and delightful villain. This performance finds its connective grounding in its early stages. Stephen Lloyd-Coombs plays his Hans as a man imbued with a sense of honour from the get-go. We never get a sense of anemic charitable sentimentality behind his ‘right action’ and this sets our relationship with the character in his own reason which is part of his appeal. Hans’ actions are only good on the condition that they follow reason, and it is this that attracts us to him.

Surrounding Stephen Lloyd-Coombs central character are three performances from Lib Campbell, Tristan Black and Mark Langham himself. The three play a multitude of characters who form a unified basic argument for the bluster of the world making its way around a man whose commitment is primarily to his own sense of self. However, bluster they may be, they are performed with such precision and clarity that narrative complexities and an enormous meandering journey are laid before us with flawless delivery of narrative. The animation and joi de vivre displayed by the chorus of voices floating around Hans, being the world that holds him separate, are beautifully and joyfully performed. The show has tremendous energy, and in this way embodies its own sampling of enlightenment principles.

Ultimately, Mark Langham offers us a thrilling portrait of a simple man in Water with the ability to touch all of us in complex ways. We are gifted a story telling style that is enormously entertaining, funny and energetic, keeping us more connected with the still, small voice of Carl Hans Lody who dutifully offers himself to humanity only to become a victim of it. Water is one of those delightful indie gems that Sydney produces regularly (these days) that serves as some of the best theatre available in this city. Don’t miss it!