Otherworlds of empathy and irony

Astrid Francis, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Robert Jago, Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Robert Jago, Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Robert Jago, Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Three individuals contacted by an otherworldly power are thrown into an existential quandary; beliefs are interrogated, relationships torn and internal isolation grows. Drawing on interviews with alien abductees in Australia, Perth Theatre Company’s ALIENATION seeks to tell the stories of those who have been touched forever by ‘close encounters’ that are rationally inexplicable yet life-changing, psychologically and philosophically.

The aesthetic vision of director Melissa Cantwell and her designers is simultaneously stark and textured. However there is a tonal ambiguity and lack of narrative impetus that weakens the piece overall. Based on interviews ALIENATION very quickly shapes into a type of verbatim theatre with a proclivity towards static story-‘telling’ rather than showing—confessional outpouring with little action or interactive dynamic to drive the scenes forward.

This approach is coupled with a meta-narrative structure in which the actors reveal they will be playing themselves as well as the interviewees. Perhaps an attempt to acknowledge that the characters are based on real people, instead the device undermines the interviewees’ experiences. By having the ‘actors’ (also characters) reveal varying degrees of belief ranging from ambivalent to facetious to explicitly sceptical, a tone of doubt is created. This forms the subtext in which there is little conviction given to the source material—at times seeping into the actors’ portrayal of the interviewees, manifesting as an undertone of ironic distance. This would be fine if ALIENATION intends to plant seeds of doubt in our acceptance of the characters, but this never seems explicit, rather it is an underdeveloped device exploring the thoughts of both sceptic and believer with limited success.

This is possibly a reason why the writer—who has expressed his compassion for the interviewees’ and their experiences—has distanced himself from the piece. A note written by the playwright Lachlan Philpott (Truck Stop, Silent Disco) is handed out to each audience member stating the production does not reflect his intentions. Subsequently his name has been removed from the program and Perth Theatre Company’s website since the production opened and the Sydney season of the production cancelled. (A statement has since been issued by Philpott through the Australian Writers Guild. Eds.)

Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

Natalie Holmwood, ALIENATION, Perth Theatre Company

You will want to see this work for Natalie Holmwood’s portrayal of Katherine, a woman who was first abducted at a very young age. Katherine is a rich and well-developed character and Holmwood embodies all of her pained, oddball yet awkwardly endearing traits. She extracts audience sympathy for Katherine as she tries to make sense of her experiences, to become something more than a victim, a curiosity and a pariah. With her flashbacks, night terrors, numbness and self-loathing she is clearly a survivor of unexplained horrors whatever their source may be.

The rest of the cast are committed to their roles but are working with thin material: their characters have not emerged as fully formed as Katherine. They are tenuous, opaque and sometimes clichéd, which makes the meta-narrative perspective even more—ahem—alienating.

The audiovisual and lighting designs—by Roly Skender and Benjamin Cisterne respectively—bring a dreamy tension to the piece and could perhaps have been further utilised to construct the sense of disorientation and discombobulation experienced by each character, rather than these being, in the main, reported in long expository monologues. Peter Dawson’s sound design is sparse and delicate, but bookended and punctuated by some overbearing popular music choices—including overt space-themed classics by Bowie and The Byrds and a swooning love ballad from Aerosmith—adding to the overall tonal discrepancy of the work.

There are pockets of whimsy and sardonic humour throughout; there is sadness and an unsettling tremor in each character. However the vacillation between parody and drama results in a less than captivating work.

Perth Theatre Company, ALIENATION, director Melissa Cantwell, performers Naomi Hanbury, Luke Hewitt, Natalie Holmwood, Robert Jago, designer Bruce McKinven, lighting Benjamin Cisterne, sound designer Peter Dawson, audiovisual designer Roly Skender, research consultant Mary Rodwell (Founder of the Australian Close Encounter Research Network); Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia, 28 June-13 July

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. web

© Astrid Francis; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

17 July 2013