On the bare
stage, there’s a
little bit of magic that happens every time an audience enters the space, every
time the lights go down and an actor walks on stage. This time is no different.
On the tiny stage, painted a deep blue, the story of two teenagers – Chris ‘Odd
Boy’ and Chloe ‘from the Underworld’ – plays out in a vivid and hypnotically
potent concoction of words, in Vivienne Walshe’s This Is
Where We Live. Griffin
Winner of the 2012 Griffin Award, This Is Where We Live is “a love story that conjures Orpheus leading his Eurydice out from the underworld of small town hell,” and amongst all the pain, and the shit, and the awkwardness of being a teenager, let alone being a teenager in a small town, there is a light that seems to come from the stars, and it seems – at least, for a while – that anything is possible.
In many ways, Walshe’s play is a series of monologues and scenes, peopled by a fair-sized ensemble of characters, all ably performed by Yalin Ozucelik and Ava Torch. There is a current trend in new Australian playwriting at the moment, where characters are both part of the action and outside of it. Plays like Food, Old Man, and The Bull, The Moon and the Coronet of Stars (as well as the epic Cloudstreet) all feature this trend, and it’s a useful device, if a relatively novelistic one. But that shouldn’t be read as a dismissal of its use – when deployed cleverly and creatively, as in the examples mentioned, it creates a complicit circle with the audience wherein they become part of the action, become a player just as much as the actors. With Walshe’s vivid pictures, her poetic and forceful, insistent language, the play hums with an urgency which threatens to overcome it. But under Francesca Smith’s subtle and assured direction, it of course never does. Scenes are shot through with stars – both physical, metaphorical, and their verbal equivalents – and when the two teenagers kiss, the theatrical conceit is so perfect, so simple and, well, theatrical, that any other way would seem a disservice to the world and the rules established by Smith’s direction.
The small town location of the play is never specified, though we know there is a (dried up) river nearby, and some sort of forest, as well as a highway. To know where the play is set is not the point, because the play is not about that at all. It’s about two characters, the respective versions of hell they find themselves living in, and the ways in which they try to reach beyond it and transcend the darkness they find themselves enclosed by. The idea of brokenness, of broken families, of ‘living hell’ sit at the centre of Walshe’s play. While Chris is the school teacher’s son, his life is not always the perfect picture we might suppose it to be; the family dinner scene (in which Ozucelik plays the father and mother as well as Chris) only confirms this. Chloe’s family is the more noticeably broken one – her father is nowhere to be seen (from the way she talks to him, perhaps he is no longer with us), her mother has a new partner who abuses and mistreats her and, we suppose, Chloe, and her life has been “hardened [by] bullies, dead-beat boyfriends and no sense of hope.” Their scenes together are filled with an aching desire to fix the brokenness inside them, to end their own private torments, and for a time, it seems like it is possible.
The play’s ending is purposely – tantalising – ambiguous. We don’t know what happens to Chloe. She talks about a train coming, her back as straight as railway sleepers, but I don’t necessarily think the train is literal, or that her spine really is railway sleepers. The train can be anything from a heady unstoppable rush of emotions, to a strong unquenchable urge to leave town, or simply the physical means by which she finally finds the courage to leave town, leave her hell behind, and start again somewhere new, where nobody knows her. The fact that Ozucelik and Torch are performing, perhaps as older versions of their teenage characters, means there is hope for Chris and Chloe, that they will survive their hells and escape.
It’s a dark and vivid, seductive, seventy-five minutes of theatre, and as Chris and Chloe write their worlds together, for the briefest of moments, they are far above the realities of their lives, and in the space that exists between them, the violence is forgotten (though never truly far away) and the stars are there, waiting, to guide you. If only you’d look up and see.
Theatre playlist: 17. Daniel, Lior