Waterloo now: STC’s Battle of Waterloo

A new play is always an exciting occasion, a debut play even more so. Kylie Coolwell’s Battle of Waterloo is a contemporary study of life in the James Cook tower in Waterloo’s housing commission estate. Begun in 2012 as part of Playwriting Australia’s Redfern Playwriting Salon, Coolwell’s play depicts the life of a family over the course of a week, in all its bloodsweatandtears, and shows just how important – how beautiful – the sense of community is in one of these residential towers.
Produced by Sydney Theatre Company in their Wharf 1 theatre, the space is filled with Renée Mulder’s ingenious set. Reminiscent of Bob Crowley’s set for the recent revival of David Hare’s Skylight, it manages to convey an intimate interior and towering exterior all at once, and seems to be a physical evocation of a line from C.S. Lewis – “there is an extraordinary charm in other people’s domesticities. Every lighted house, seen from the road, is magical: every pram or lawn-mower in someone else’s garden: all smells or stirs of cookery from the windows of alien kitchens.” While we see Cassie and her family in their little flat, marked out on a series of low platforms with walls and doors – complete with balcony – around them, we see the little strip of grass down below, the neighbours on their balconies smoking or breathing in the night air, little pockets of light in the dark theatre, and it is beautiful.

Coolwell’s play centres around sisters Cassie and Sissy, who live with their aunt. Cassie’s boyfriend has just been released from three years inside, and as he tries to adjust to his new life, the family’s relationships, hopes, and struggles are thrown together in a potent mix of love, determination, and aliveness.  Directed by STC Resident Director Sarah Goodes, there is a violent tenderness at play here, a sensitivity which makes Coolwell’s play thrive on stage, and over the play’s two-and-a-half hour duration there is barely a moment which does not feel lived-in, authentically-real; honest.
The cast are all strong and vibrant, their characters as engaging as the next; it’s warming to see a strong cast of this size in a debut play too. As Cassie, Shari Sebbens is determined, fierce, and holds her own at the play’s climax, and moves from tender to practicing tough-love in a heartbeat. Luke Carroll’s Ray is full of an invigorating bluster, but there is a tenderness underneath which is moving, and his growing despair throughout the piece is quietly devastating. Roxanne McDonald’s Aunt Mavis is warm, but is not afraid to speak her mind and say what others are perhaps afraid to. Guy Simon’s Leon is wonderful as Ray’s best friend, and provides a moving counterpoint to Ray’s quiet despair. James Slee is impressive as Jack, Ray’s (shy) young nephew, even if he is a presence more felt and seen than heard. As Sissy, Shareena Clanton is like a hurricane, tearing into the flat and its occupants with razor-sharp claws, but as tragedy unfurls itself on their doorstep, she is the one of the first to shine through, her waywardness giving way to a fierce fragility. As Uncle Milo, Billy McPherson has a impish side to his charm, but it never feels forced. Coolwell’s skill here is in juggling these seven characters, giving them strong parts, and never letting them out of her sight for too long. This is amplified in Goodes’ staging and Mulder’s set, where characters appear from doorways, in and out of the back of scenes and transitions, giving the piece a lived-in-ness, a realness which elevates the already strong script to a kind of poetic realism.

While the first act seems perhaps ten minutes too long with some beats repeated with a slight variation, the second act is strong and taut. There are shades of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire here, a comparison which does not do this play any harm at all; likewise with the inevitable and deserved comparisons to the acclaimed ABC television series Redfern Now. Coolwell’s Battle of Waterloo is a story told from the heart, and is an assured and moving debut play from a new voice in Australia’s theatrical landscape. I hope we get to hear and see more in the coming years.

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