Quollity: Black Swan’s Extinction

It’s an interesting coincidence that there are two plays currently playing on national mainstages that deal quite substantially with the idea of extinction. Malthouse’s They Saw A Thylacine, and Black Swan’s Extinction talk around and about the issue, not just examining its ramifications, but also about the role we humans play in the process, the way we can prevent mass extinctions through changing the way we behave and act. Hannie Rayson’s Extinction adds another layer to the mix, in examining the idea of ‘clean’ and ‘dirty’ money – money that comes from ethically-grey sources, in this case, a coal-mining company. It’s a bold move for Black Swan to produce this play, as their major sponsor is mining giant Rio Tinto, and the play’s very existence further examines this idea simply by being programmed, staged, and written about.

Directed by Stuart Halusz, Extinction is the story of four interconnected characters. On a stormy night, Harry Jewel (Matt Dyktynski) hits a tiger quoll whilst driving, and takes it to a zoologist-cum-vet (Hannah Day). Hannah’s partner, both professionally and personally, is another vet, Andy (Myles Pollard), whose sister Heather (Sarah McNeill) runs the conservation research facility at a nearby university. And very soon, all four characters’ lives are intertwined as they fight not just to save the quoll, but fight for everything they believe in and stand for. Halusz directs with a clear hand, and it’s refreshing to see such a strong script be given such an assured production – never for a moment are we left in any doubt that the writer and/or director aren’t at the top of their game. While some moments may ring with an air of too much exposition, or a turn of phrase jars slightly, Rayson’s structure and momentum in Extinction are solid and well-crafted, and it is matched by Halusz’s skill as a director, to keep everything moving, to not get bogged down in Rayson’s long scenes, to let the play move and flow and breathe and shift as it must.
Playing in the Heath Ledger theatre in Perth’s State Theatre Centre, Extinction benefits in the best possible way from exploiting the theatre’s full height and depth. Bryan Woltjen’s set, for most of the production, is rather confined, claustrophobic even, a series of low-roofed interiors – a vet’s surgery, a high-rise apartment, an office – but once we arrive back from interval, the curtain rises on a stunning view of a rainforest, complete with tent, campfire, mist, and trees towering off well above the full height of the theatre. It’s only for a scene, but it gives the play a little bit of space to breathe, space to stretch its wings before it jumps back into the rest of the second act, and it is stronger for it. I wonder what would have happened to the rhythm of the show though, if there was no interval, if there was no break before the rainforest scene was revealed; we would move straight from the high-rise apartment to the rainforest – the walls and roof of the set would fly out into the wings, the ‘roof’ of the interior sets would lower with the tent and backpacks already on it, and the plinth would sink into the floor to reveal a campfire… I think this would break the slightly cyclical rhythm of the first act, give the play a bit of space to breathe, and it would give the reveal more impact than it already has, as we literally see the rainforest appear in front of us, from around the interiors. Trent Suidgeest’s lighting adds mood and texture, and Ben Collins’ score and sound design is evocative and clear, and adds a gentle homespun poetry to the landscapes, to the environment around the story.

While the first act suffers slightly from a somewhat repetitive momentum in the scenes, whereby they each build to a similar point by their end, it would be interesting to see what another production makes of Rayson’s script, how they solve the challenges she throws to a team with her call for depicting the rainforest and the injured quoll, as well as the need for an interval, and the rhythm of the production as a whole. In many respects, this production – just as much as this play – deserves a long life, and I hope other companies within Australia see it, hear about it, and decide to program it, help it to live a long and fruitful life, as the ethical quandaries of arts funding, conservation funding, clean energy, and heavyweight industry are negotiated, and the borders of ethical practice are explored and defined. 

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