The Irresistible: To the light

Nerida Dickinson

Lights dim, the enclosed stage area fills with smoke, torchlight cuts through the gloom in truncated moving beams, with two shadowy figures calling to each other. A sudden ball of light, shot through with colours, explodes in the smoke behind them, lingering a little longer than lightning and leaving the characters and audience dazed in its wake.

For her new work, Western Australian writer-director Zoe Pepper offers an experimental and eclectic work of constantly criss-crossing plots and characters, played by just two actors. Co-produced by Side Pony Productions and The Last Great Hunt, The Irresistible’s interwoven narratives are realised with tightly coordinated sound design, innovative pitch-manipulation of actors’ voices and a simple yet startling set involving transparent layers within layers that enclose the actors within a strange, self-contained onstage world.

Events unfold in The Irresistible in a way that defies description. We open in the cockpit of an aircraft. Two co-pilots, played by Tim Watts and Adriane Daff, exchange workplace banter; everything runs smoothly until one pilot is gripped by a mysterious force, sending the plane hurtling to a fatal crash landing. This enigmatic energy may also feed new character Bridget’s obsession, confining her to a world of mental illness. Though she insists that she and her sister April were taken somewhere in a childhood memory, April staunchly denies it.

Adriane Daff and Tim Watts in Zoe Pepper’s The Irresistible, photo by Dan Grant

Watts and Daff play the entire array of characters in functional, matching costumes of industrial-styled coveralls: a bickering odd couple, council worker Eric and medical doctor April; Niamh and her regular peep show client Christian; April and Bridget and their young niece Cassie, an evil child whose imaginary friend Abby makes an implied appearance. Watts and Daff both play male and female roles, reversing gendered expectations and sublimating physical appearance. As their cast of characters swiftly come and go, my mind tries to find a common thread, but I’m mainly left with admiration for the versatility and ingenuity of the two actors who manage to create such a crowded stage with a total absence of costume changes or props. Split-second timing allows Daff and Watts to switch between characters with vocal pitch changes captured through their headset microphones. Far from a mere gimmick, these tight, precisely-timed changes enhance the performers’ body language, posture and changes in stance — these characters are believable and compelling to watch, with the scenes and roles often changing between breaths.

While Pepper’s script abruptly shifts between all these human interactions, a recurring motif of torchlight beams cutting through the gloom hints at a greater irresistible force driving them all — and moving us toward an eerie, inconclusive ending. Whether this mysterious light is a deeper shared, connecting imperative or simply a sideshow in the night sky is left to the audience to contemplate.

The show alludes to themes of dominance, gender roles, entitlement, family responsibilities and social expectations, all queried as forms of unconscious bias in our everyday lives. As constructs, these forms of bias clearly necessitated deep research on Pepper’s part, yet the work still functions as an absorbing piece of entertainment, with the grander narratives hinted at in the turn of a shoulder, a trick of the mouth and a slurring of vowels.

Adriane Daff and Tim Watts in Zoe Pepper’s The Irresistible, photo by Dan Grant

The production arrives in a wider context of experimental performance among Perth theatremakers. The Last Great Hunt consistently produces engaging and interesting theatre, pushing theatrical boundaries by integrating performance techniques across genres and reconsidering the narrative imperative. The Last Great Hunt’s recent work, The Advisors, was a peculiar exploration of cultural norms expressed through spoken word and physical theatre, while Pepper’s recent directorial project The Confidence Man also played with character-driven narrative and inventive uses of audio technology. Perth theatremakers are delivering not only intriguing new works but also providing a new take on established pieces: this year, The Last Great Hunt member Jeffrey Jay Fowler’s direction of The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz impressed audiences and critics with the way it embraced ambiguity and entrusted the audience with their own creative interpretation.

Jonathon Oxlade’s innovative design for The Irresistible literally contains the action in a sealed transparent set, in which layers of clear plastic sheeting form transparent boxes. Richard Vabre’s exacting lighting design is closely integrated: the set’s layers within layers fill with smoke effects to create vacuums of cloud, steam and fog in a way, conjuring the ambiguity of human memory and motivation. Phil Downing and Ash Gibson Greig produce a rich and complex soundscape, in which the shifts in character development are deeply embedded. Daff and Watts deserve recognition not just as actors but as collaborators interpreting Pepper’s intelligent and challenging script. The resulting production is disconcerting yet captivating; it fascinates, perplexes and rewards close attention.

Side Pony Productions & The Last Great Hunt, The Irresistible, director, writer Zoe Pepper, writers, performers Adriane Daff, Tim Watts, set and costume designer Jonathon Oxlade, composer Ash Gibson Greig, sound design Phil Downing, lighting design Richard Vabre, producer Gemma Pepper, production manager Ben Kontoolas, stage manager Hannah Portwine, gizmo specialist Anthony Watts, PICA Performance Space, Perth, 14-24 June

Top image credit: Adriane Daff and Tim Watts in Zoe Pepper’s The Irresistible, photo by Dan Grant

18 July 2017