Still orbiting: Griffin Independent & ARTHUR’s Return to Earth

Two years ago, after Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch wove its magic at Belvoir, I set about trying to find as many of her plays as I could find, either in performance or in script form. When Griffin announced their 2013 season a year ago, I was very keen to see Katz’s Return to Earth, in its Sydney premiere, as I had heard mixed reviews of its premiere season in 2011 at the Melbourne Theatre Company. Presented here by ARTHUR as part of the Griffin Independent season, Return to Earth is very much a Lally Katz play, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or otherwise.
Return to Earth is about Alice, a thirty-something year old woman who returns to her family home in the sleepy coastal town of Tathra in NSW, and the impact her return has on her family, her friends, and the people she meets. In typical Katz fashion, the surreal and whimsical smashes right up against the poignant and heartfelt, yet it feels as though there is an elephant in the subtext of the play which no one is addressing.

Staged on a bare stage with minimal props, director Paige Rattray lets Katz’s words tell the story, lets them fill in the details, and in Shari Sebbens’ Alice, she has a strong and wonder-filled actor who is more than able to match Katz’s mix of the surreal and the poetic. In Alice’s “maniacally cheerful” family – who are so careful not to mention the years she was absent – Rattray has fashioned a kind of carnival of the familiar. In many respects, Alice’s parents, played by Wendy Strehlow and Laurence Coy, are just like any other parents – concerned for their daughter, always trying to do what’s best for her, always fussing around her, getting in the way, being parents – but there’s the elephant again: just what are they all dancing around? What is it they are being so careful not to mention? Catherine Terracini, as Alice’s former best friend Jeanie, gives a nuanced performance as the person who was left behind, someone who is like the collateral in a car crash – damaged, but still functioning; she, too, is dancing around something, and when we realize what it is, Alice’s determination and eternally (and sometimes annoying) optimism seems to ring false, as though Alice herself knows it isn’t really real. As played by Ben Barber, Alice’s brother Tom is, along with Jeanie and perhaps Catta (Tom’s six-year-old daughter), the most realistic of Tathra’s inhabitants. There is an emotional weight and burden to Barber’s performance which is only all too apparent when compared to the rest of the characters. As Catta, Scarlett Waters came dangerously close to breaking your heart on several occasions and very nearly stole every scene she was in. Dressed in her golden kangaroo onesie, ten-year-old Waters had an integrity, honesty and openness that belied her age, and you cannot help but be affected by them as in Storm Boy. As Theo, Alice’s love interest and the town’s mechanic, Yure Covich had a kind of self-effacing Quasimodo-like physicality to his character, and the moment where Alice pulls out the shell-like barnacles growing off his back only serves to alienate him further from the emotional journey of the play.
A strangely disarming thing happens when you make a child the centre of a story (and Catta, in many ways, is the play’s centre), and in Return to Earth it is certainly the case, despite whatever claim Alice may make to being the main role. In Catta, whose kidneys are failing her, we have the determined fight of someone whose body is betraying them, and who is, in a sense, broken. And Return to Earth is peopled with broken people – from Alice’s parents who, we are told, have had cancer, to Jeanie who cannot have children, to Tom whose sister has been missing for much of her adult life and whose wife is absent, perhaps dead; to Theo who has shells growing from his back and who is fascinated by car motors, to Alice who… well, we don’t really know where she’s been or what she’s all about. And I think this is the play’s biggest obstacle: no matter how surreal or emotional or poetic the story and or Katz’s language is, unless the lead character (Alice) engages us on an emotional level, her journey and subsequent transformation seems to be made redundant in the face of Catta’s struggle, in the face of everyone else’s tragedy which they bear the burden of and carry on living with.
I came out of the play’s ninety minutes thinking it would’ve made a really good (and surreal) short film, where we could get a kind of scale and sense of Alice’s outsider status as she ‘returns to earth.’ So much of Katz’s language deals with the poetry of the physical seeable world that to have it all in your head is both a blessing and a curse simultaneously: without it, we can create it for ourselves, but by the same token, to not have it created for us, Alice kind of blends in to the rest of the family, to the rest of Tathra’s inhabitants so that we ultimately don’t see her as an outsider anymore. Rather, Alice becomes a merely disenchanted and perhaps delirious young woman who has just returned from some kind of ordeal and who is struggling to readjust to an unquantified amount of time having passed without so much as a wrinkle showing on her body. She is, for all intents and purposes, very much still a woman younger than thirty, someone whose desires and needs border on the adolescent, whose impulses seem like that of a teenager’s. And yet Catta, twenty years Alice’s junior, seems to be the adult.
Perhaps I’m being too cynical, or too closed to the deliberate and elliptical surreality of Katz’s script and story, but when the family all (briefly) sat around the dining table late in the piece, there was a humble kind of homespun magic that erupted violently and beautifully from the simple round table, the chairs, the crocheted tablecloth, from the lightshade lowered from the ceiling. Here was the life and verve which Alice had talked about with Theo on the boat in the middle of the ocean, the kind of cosmic normality that Alice found in outer space, the thing that she describes to her mum in the play’s final scene.
Perhaps, like Alice, we’re all lost in outer space, looking for something that reminds us of home, waiting for a little path to follow, something among the stars and constellations that reminds us of mum’s garden at home, and without really realizing it, we follow it and find ourselves slowly returning to Earth. However it is, however it seems, we’re all still just drifting through space, through life, still orbiting around people and desires and places, still waiting for a light to guide us home…

Theatre playlist: 28. Birth of a New Intelligence, Daniel Pemberton

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