Pomona – The horror and beauty of the sandbox game. (Theatre Review)


Secret House in association with bAKEHOUSE Theatre

At KXT 24 January – 8 February

You can grab your tickets here.

Images Clare Hawley

Please note: I attended this production as a full paying ticket holder in order to relay a complete audience member experience. I did not receive any gratuity from a publicist or a production company.

For secret House’s Pomona, an exciting conflict of masculine energies sets the tone for an intellectually invigorating presentation of Alistair McDowall’s play. Producers Jane Angharad and James Smithers (Secret House) combine the electric masculinities of the youthful McDowall with the philosophical beauty of Anthony Skuse to produce a conflicted engagement with the world of the online gamer. The result is a phallic immersion into The Real of the gamer with an emphasis on the fantasy aspect that gives the audience the impression we have been led into some place then ushered to an exit different from the door through which we entered. In this way Alistair McDowall’s writing takes us deep into the mind set of a young man while director Anthony Skuse offers us art and beauty as a way out of that young man’s darkness.

In a key monologue given a generous portion of time, Charlie (Kevin Batliwala) explains to his friend Moe (James Smithers) that he fantasises almost daily about covering the city in a film of his sperm. He claims this is not a sexual performance, rather it is an action to promote healing. It is this speech (alongside a clever piece of costuming using the colour red) that offers the character of Charlie to the audience as a participant in a sandbox game along the lines of Grand Theft Auto. The audience find themselves, like a gamer, caught in the perpetual conflict between The Real of Life and The Real of The Game. In this way, we are swept into the phallic drive of the young male gamer.

A super villain known as Zeppo (Dorje Swallow) drives around the city at night eating McDonalds Chicken McNuggets. His actions force horrific consequences on others, but he separates himself from the consequences by a refusal to engage with reason or knowledge. He cites the death of his father who died of ‘a steal rod through the skull’ as his justification for keeping his mind and his body separate. The opening scene, via his monologue, calls forth the notion of the penis as the primal head that acts as an alternate to the head of reason. We are faced with the Freudian construct of Jekyll and Hide or Hulk and Banner where a young man’s alter ego (the penis) is the creative, destructive death drive and the man’s head is a controlling force of reason that attempts to prevent the more powerful penis from killing the whole body.

Alistair McDowall takes us into the realm of this young man. We follow him into a world that is fantasy (game) but peppered with enough connection to The Real to shake the boundaries of perception. Women are whores, men are violent and everyone else in the world is expendable. Alistair McDowall cleverly blurs the bounds of fact and fiction in order to allow his audience to sink into the world of these young men and experience the horror and exhilaration of what it is to be living inside one of these games.

This would be interesting enough for a play, but director Anthony Skuse moves the entirety into another realm when he introduces cinematic sound, Hitchcockian lighting effects and perspective-altering staging. Rather than being removed from the intent and drive of the writer, the audience is reminded that even the darkest world (that of GTA or the ‘penis inspired’ game) can only possess us if it makes some sort of claim to beauty and that beauty (rather than a teenage boys jizz) is the healing agent. This reaches a climactic moment when an anger filled man (James Smithers) reaches up toward the foot of a whore (Lauren Richardson who is a breathtaking manifestation of The Venus) in order to experience human contact and is subsequently illuminated. If the writer wants us to understand the propaganda influences art and its addictions contain, the director wants us to examine the possibility that the solution to that dilemma lies inside the problem itself. The key is to recognize beauty.

In this way our two artists (writer and director) are in simpatico and equally at odds, and thereby in a kind of perfect alchemic dichotomy that implies just as The Real is informed by fantasy, so fantasy is informed by The Real and each are in response to beauty. This in turn inspires not hope, but trust in our fellow man to find their way to transformative beauty. In this way, Anthony Skuse reminds us that relief from horror (in this case the dark world of an online gamer performing the grossest of actions) might be in the heart and soul of that human if only we can trust them and ourselves enough to see and fight for the beautiful.

This makes for a thrilling, immersive and intellectually exciting take on Alisatir McDowall’s play. Masculinity is represented through performances by Dorje Swallow (death drive) James Smithers (rage) and Kevin Batliwala (reason) each of whom work intently to contain the dichotomies inherent in their representation while being properly human in a way that only an avatar can. Women are represented by Amanda McGregor (victim) Lauren Richardson (Venus) and Monica Sayers (bitch) through the lens of the young man, giving us startling insight into the way women are seen by naive masculine energy. Underlining all these is the excitingly unnerving performance of Jane Angharad as Keaton, the ultimate symbol of potent fantasy and the other character wearing red.

As always with Secret House productions, much attention is given to production quality, and Pomona is no exception. With exceptional lighting design from Veronique Benett, cinematic sounds from Nate Edmonson understated yet thrilling set design by Anthony Skuse and James Smithers all tied together nicely by SM Clare Sheridan, Pomona successfully reaches and traverses its ambitions and intentions and provides for an exciting night of theatre. After my audience experience, I would recommend Pomona to anyone interested in seeing the online world powerfully represented on a stage and anyone interested in modern masculinity and its narratives. I’d recommend it to gamers and those interested in the transitional worlds between online and RL. I’d also recommend it to those interested in stories and narratives that successfully convey complex internal worlds.

Secret House is one of Sydney’s theatre companies to watch. They had a stellar 2019 and built on a well-earned reputation for meticulous theatre that understood its subject matter. Pomona has them start 2020 with a strong voice that bodes well for their forthcoming productions and makes their productions a must see on the 2020 theatre calendar.