Life Is Impossible – Subtlenuance and the impossible. (Theatre Review)

Life Is Impossible

Subtlenuance with 505 Fresh Works

18-23 February. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Syl Marie Photography

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. 

The production I attended was a preview.

There are few playwrights struggling with the question of ‘what is theatre’ in the way that Paul Gilchrist does. Beyond the self-conscious ‘play within a play’ meta examination, Paul Gilchrist concerns himself with questions relating to the nature of theatre, it’s impact on its makers as well as its audience and the dubious nature of the well from which theatre is sprung. What is actually happening when we go to the theatre? In Life is Impossible, Paul Gilchrist turns to the philosopher Simone Weil for assistance in an examination of truth verses the imagination. In Life Is Impossible, the ‘truth’ of Simone Weils life as a stranded intellectual in New York City desperate to get back to the reality of War in Europe is relayed with intentional nods to the most obvious truth which is that we cannot know Simone Weil. To muse on any of the interesting aspects of her life is to engage the imagination she so carefully warned us against. So Paul Gilchrist, in his delightfully confounding way, makes a whole and complete case for Simone’s warnings against the imagination by using the imagination itself.

In this way, Life is Impossible becomes a meditation on the Socratic question: Just what is theatre anyway? Simone Weil is called forth by the writer as a source for a questioning of the imagination, but equally she is the embodiment of that claims refutation, for how can we even conceive of Simone Weil without the imagination? For Paul Gilchrist then, the journey toward some sort of truth (which was a known passion for Simone Weil) becomes one of how to best navigate a multitude of lies, or rather ‘perspectives’ that make truth a vaporous impossibility. We the audience come face to face with the idea that if theatre’s truth is impossible (and it most likely is) then life itself is impossible.

To account for the fiction inherent in any attempt to recreate the past through story, Paul Gilchrist changes his protagonists name and then seeks to reconstruct the Simone he discovered through the imagination. The play itself acknowledges that can only distort and take each of us away from Simone Weils own truth. Paul Gilchrist, as happens regularly also directs his own work. True to the style he presents through Subtlenuance, the production is pared down, minimalist, and beautiful. The famously serious nature of Simone Weil is brought to life by a performance by Chloe Schwank who conveys an authoritarian yet warm image to her Simone Pourpre. Chloe Schwank equally allows for this with her performance, becoming a hybrid of Simone Weil as a symbol of the authors relationship with the works he read.

The contrast that helps us arrive at a textual point comes forward in the character Elaine performed by Elle Harris. If Simone is the realist who refuses the imagination, Elaine is the fantasist who loses herself in it. For Paul Gilchrist this strange positing is made universal in the time period showing a Europe at war and a United States preparing to enter and take the world by storm. The Musical is posited against The Theatre via the two women and the two cultures they come to embody. For Simone, the flashy American style masks naivete and unpreparedness. For Elaine, Americans are optimistic, believe in transformation and want to evoke a sense of safety. For Paul Gilchrist the American dream is a classic example of the failure of the imagination. Elle Harris brings a dreamy beauty to the wide-eyed optimist and a modernity that transports the play set in 1942 to our modern day. In a delicate and nuanced performance, Elle Harris presents a character that embodies the theatre. When she pines for the promises of America, she pines for all those who dream of being discovered.

Europe and America are successfully embodied in the characters of Michael performed by a potently engaged Cormac Costello and Tom performed by Matt Abotomey. The characters are never posited against each other, rather their influence and perspective work on the characters of Elaine and Simone. These are men with the ability to control the two women tested in that control by an engagement of imagination that might save them. In a delightful contrarian move, the writer convinces us that it is a lack of imagination that prevents Michael from understanding Simone and Tom from becoming his best self when connected to Elaine. However, for Paul Gilchrist’s male characters, the imagination is that which pretends it learns from colonialism and sees communists everywhere. Possibly it is a crisis of imagination that prevents both men from seeing the women in their presence. Both Cormac Costello and Matt Abotomey bring chilling manifestations of a colonial past and a brash dominating future. Their performances are superb manifestations of the culture they represent and the inherent evils contained therein. Both are flawless representations of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. Both are Eichmann’s in their own way.

Subtlenuance are aptly named in that the theatre company produce pared down works that encourage thought and self-reflection in the most subtle of encounters. Nothing is more relevant today than the question of how Sydney is dragged along by the two masters of its imagination: England and America. In Life is Impossible we are fully present to the cost of our blind adherence. We are equally exposed to a pair of alternate perspectives that represent our singular choice. We can stoically waste ourselves on a sacrificial symbol or mindlessly enjoy life while contributing to a lie. It’s a grim choice, yet Subtlenuance manage to see beyond the tragedy of life’s inevitabilities to the gift of the imagination that frees us from the tragedy of The Real. It is the impossibility of life that makes the imagination of theatre a true salvation.