“Lean back. I've got you. Find a bit of sky.”
– Part One
For the past two years (this being my third), I’ve held a season subscription with Belvoir St Theatre. Initially it was so I could get tickets to see the inimitable Geoffrey Rush in Diary of a Madman in December 2010, but it’s grown to be more than just that. There’s something magical about that corner stage of Belvoir’s, a rare magic, where the audience and actors play to each other, where the energy is never lost in the gaping chasm between the proscenium arch and auditorium, where everything is highly focused, cornered even; where you feel like something special is happening.
In 2010, the highlights for me were Love Me Tender by Tom Holloway, Gwen In Purgatory by Tommy Murphy, and Diary of a Madman with Geoffrey Rush and Yael Stone. In 2011, with the rebranding of Belvoir and Ralph Myers’ first season as Artistic Director, the standouts for me were Neighbourhood Watch by Lally Katz, and As You Like It, directed by Eamon Flack. (Never before have I had so much fun in a theatre than with As You Like It, and never before have I actually wanted to see a show more than once. Also, I have never seen such brilliant sheep as that cast created during interval.) This year, I think the biggest promise was Babyteeth, a new play by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Eamon Flack, and billed as “a mad, gorgeous, bittersweet comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet.”
While not wanting to give away too much about the plot (the season book tells you what's going to happen anyway, so I wouldn't really be spoiling it even if I did), I want to comment on the production itself. Out of the productions I’ve seen at Belvoir recently, it has been possible to like the play and not the production, and v.v. (The Seagull, and Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll are the two major respective examples here.) The thing I love about the new Australian plays that Belvoir is programming is their diversity and the voice of their writing. In the case of Love Me Tender, speech was fragmented and fractured, disjointed and interspliced with itself to create haunting word pictures; Gwen In Purgatory, there was a pain and cynicism underneath the warmth, familiarity and awkward humour of the family’s struggles; Neighbourhood Watch was a “glorious comedy about hope, death and pets;” and then along comes Babyteeth, with its figs, eight-year-old violin prodigy, morphine, clear skies and Latvian immigrants (amongst many other unreckonable forces), and it spins it all together in a magnificently bittersweet concoction buzzing and humming with ‘the violent sweetness of life.’
I love a revolving stage, and even better when it is used creatively and beautifully (Neighbourhood Watch, I’m looking at you), and Babyteeth did not disappoint. At the end of the first act, as Milla and Moses ran through her house laughing, the stage bathed in a golden sunlight, the revolve spun anticlockwise as David Byrne’s ‘Tiny Apocalypse’ played, and it was one of those beautiful moments of stage magic that make you grin from ear to ear. (It is now my favourite song for the time being.)
In 25 Belvoir Street, Rita Kalnejais, the writer of Babyteeth, talks about the grace of the Belvoir space, and its presence as a theatrical institution. “You’re revealed,” she says. “You have no choice but to surrender. And when you do, it’s like falling from a great and beautiful height. So easy. When you step onto that stage you’ve already thrown your heart. It is leaping to meet it that you arrive at Grace. … It's hard to define in words, but you know when it's present. It registers in goose-bumps, in laughter, tears of joy, a shudder of grief, a sigh of deep and sudden insight, in silence. Grace becomes most visible in the face of disaster. When everything's going to shit, grace presses out like red leaf patterns from the chaos. … Grace is what catches you when you've lost control and you're free-falling. … At the moment of grace our hearts are exquisite, raw and open and we are guided by them. … When I sit in a dark theatre and someone on stage reveals the truth of their heart to me and I feel my own beat in response - I feel grace. … It's the miracle of humans being revealed together.” Belvoir, she concludes, is the very hub of grace, and out of it Babyteeth was written. It shows. The play, to me, fits wonderfully with their aesthetic – their ‘house style’ (to quote Alan John in 25 Belvoir Street) – of intense, raw, often anarchic, personal stories, that connect to a larger picture as well as working on a more intimate level. Even though you know how it’s going to end from the first scene, the way it ends up there is life-affirming effervescent, so full of the unfathomable quirks and friendships we find our lives made of, so full of Life. There’s something disarmingly beautiful about it, about the whole thing – from the script and cast, to the set and space and the plot, the way they all deal with it. I don’t think I could think of a better play to start my 2012 season at Belvoir.
All other quotes are from the relevant season books, distributed by Belvoir St Theatre.