Small world, big dreams: Belvoir & La Boite’s Samson

Small towns don't feel small when you grow up there.  That comes later.  The world as you know it seems wide.  You feel close to it, the smells, the seasons, the secret places.  But slowly, imperceptibly, like childhood itself, that comfortable, familiar, reassuring world starts to slip away.
 – Noel Mengel, RPM

Julia-Rose Lewis’ assured first play Samson is a one of those coming-of-age stories which dot the landscape of the Australian psyche. Set in a small country town, the play follows the lives of Essie, Beth, Sid, and Rabbit, as they collide, love, fight, dream, and burn burn burn. Co-produced by Belvoir and Brisbane’s La Boite theatre, Samson arrives in Sydney after a two-week run in Brisbane fizzing with life, exploding in Belvoir’s Downstairs theatre with vitality and something akin to incandescence.

Lewis’ four kids live in a small town at the arse end of the earth. While their days seem to consist of nothing more than drinking, playing truth-or-dare, swimming in the creek, and hanging around the place, it takes the death of one of their friends (the titular Samson) to put a wedge between them and make them take stock of who, what, where, and why they are. The magic in Lewis’ play comes not just from the story, but from the way the kids open up about their fears and dreams, their loves and heartbreaks, the way they try to get themselves out of the rut of existence.
Directed by Kristine Landon-Smith, Samson unfolds on a wooden set which fills the Downstairs space almost to the edge of the seats. Designed by Michael Hili, it is a large misshapen mound, reminiscent of rocks or the earth, a rough-hewn place the kids can call their own, a place away from the eyes and ears of adults. Indeed, there is not an adult to be seen or heard in this play. Landon-Smith directs with a clear eye and keeps the play moving, despite some quirks in the staging. Perhaps as a result of playing in the round at La Boite, some scenes are blocked so that half the audience cannot see a character in a key speech, and some moments are staged up in the back corner, again alienating half the audience. It is a shame, because the production and direction is otherwise clear and considered, even if the criss-crossing of the space to signify a journey is used twice too many times. A lot of Lewis’ dialogue is in short bursts, staccato phrases delivered in a faltering manner; when a character speaks more than two or three lines in a row, the flow of the moment is broken and fractured, diminished somewhat by the jagged flow; I’m curious as to whether it is a textual thing on Lewis’ part, or a directorial, actorly decision suggested by Landon-Smith and embellished upon by the actors. While I understand the intention in giving the production a rawness and a kind of verisimilitude to the haltering speech patterns often used by teenagers, it doesn’t differentiate any of the four characters’ big speeches from each other, and – aside from accents and inflections – they all sound rather homogenous, which I’m not sure was the intention.
Quibbles about the delivery aside, the cast – all young actors at the beginning of their careers – are strong. Belinda Jombwe’s Beth is forthright and cheeky, challenged by the death of their friend as she was, perhaps, the closest to him. Charles Wu’s Sid is quite violent and confrontational; even though there is a tender side to him, it is more often underscored by a fierceness and an unpredictability which adds a further layer of dimension to his character. Ashleigh Cummings’ Essie is a bit of a firebrand, all fire and brimstone initially, but as the layers are pulled back we see she is just as scared and shaken as the rest of them, and she too is trying to make sense of all of it before it is lost, before it is too late. Benjamin Creek’s Rabbit is endearing in a goofy kind of way, eager to please Essie, make a good impression, and there is a tenderness to him which is beautiful; while some of his lines are lost, he makes up for it in spirit and bigheartedness, and his scene with Essie on the full-moon is tender and fragile.

There are many lovely little moments in Samson to savour, from the tender scenes between Rabbit and Essie, to the kids’ rough charm, the opening salvo of questions; the little moments, glances, touches, exchanges between characters. At its heart is the big question every one of us is searching for, the question of grace and understanding, of what does it all mean, and the search for answers to the unfathomable immensities of life. It asks us to set aside our differences in an attempt to foster compassion and finding the common ground on which we stand. The play’s end, while losing some its full impact in the staging, makes you smile, and hints at the understanding and kindred-spiritedness which Lewis believes in. It might not be ground-breaking or life-changing, but as a first play from a new voice, I reckon Samson is beautiful. 

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