Friday, November 20, 2015

HOW ARE YOU at The Public Theatre


Writer Laura Lethlean. Director Jessica Arthur. Producer Katie Cawthorne.

The Anchor and Aspen Island Theatre Company. The Public Theatre. Civic Square. November 17-21. 2015.

Reviewer  Peter Wilkins

Unless you have happened to wander past Civic Square during the past few nights, you may not have noticed that the square has been transformed by an enterprising group of young artists, intent on bringing contemporary Australian theatre to Canberrans. The Public Theatre is a bold venture by a new and exciting young company, eager to engage with national and international theatre practice. Aspen Island Theatre Company (AITC) has created an open air theatre venue in front of the Canberra Theatre Centre and between the ACT Legislative Assembly and the Canberra Museum and Gallery. Scaffold seating, surrounding a performance space and facing a large white screen on which to project films, creates an erected amphitheatre setting in the heart of Civic and within the political and artistic hub of our city.
Richard Cotta as HE, Isha Menon as IT and Julia Christensen as HER
in Anchor Theatre Company's HOW ARE YOU?
I have come to see the work of another new theatre company, The Anchor Theatre Company, the brainchild of Artistic Director of Canberra Youth Theatre, Katie Cawthorne, director, Jessica Arthur and Melbourne based playwright, Laura Lethlean. Under the auspices of AITC, The Anchor Theatre Company premieres Lethlean’s one act play about human relationships, How Are You, and is the first of a series of events to take place in the space until November 29th. A brief glance at the proposed events offers a tempting array of theatre, film, conversations, classic film screenings of Don’s Party and Gore Vidal’s The Best Man with Henry Fonda. Bold in its ambition, innovative in its programming, original in its concept and a youthful, vital and refreshing addition to Canberra’s cultural landscape, The Public Theatre is a smorgasbord of theatrical and cultural treats. Check out the programme at AITC.ORG.AU or grab a booklet from the box office in Civic Square. With a variety of  performances  happening between 6 p.m. and 10.30 and some early afternoon events, there is something for everyone and if The Public Theatre’s opening performance of How Are You is anything to go by, audiences are guaranteed original, engaging and high quality performance.
The heat still hangs heavy in the air at the 6.30 performance of Laura Lethlean’s How  Are You. The play is a tightly constructed exploration of human relationships, and most particularly the complex labyrinth of sexual and personal politics. Lethlean’s economical text takes a finely sharpened scalpel to peel away the protective and defensive layers to expose the true feelings and thoughts that surface during the fraught game of infatuation, sexual attraction and love. Played out by HIM (Richard Cotta) and HER ( Julia Christensen), life’s game of love comes a rollercoaster ride of initial attraction, gradual familiarity and eventual disillusionment. We are left to ponder the very nature of Nature’s natural trajectory. The past lingers in questioning perplexity at a failed relationship in the person of IT (Isha Menon). IT provides the voice of external judgement, probing, questioning, seeking reasons for failure and answers to the interminable doubt and decisions that trace the journey of relationship between two people.
Richard Cotta and Isha Menon in HOW ARE YOU?
In half an hour, Lethlean’s skilfully crafted expose shifts and turns, avoiding the banal, the predictable and the cliché, while at the same time establishing relationships and interactions that resonate with an instantly recognizable truth. The use of shared dialogue between the three characters, the magazine list of twenty secrets of success to attract a person, occasional flights of poetic description, the gruelling account of IT’s monologue about her abortion, and the totally natural conversation between HIM and Her during the moments of physical attraction, living together and the eventual decline, combine to paint a portrait that holds a mirror up to our own passions, vulnerability and insecurity.
The success of Lethlean’s writing relies on two vital elements: strong performances from the three actors and imaginative, but unintrusive direction.  In Richard Cotta, Julia Christensen and Isha Menon, director Jessica Arthur has three young actors who are able to lend the dialogue a naturalistic tone, while observing a theatricality that imbues a universality to this one situation. Menon maintains a detachment as the former lover, and yet offers a desperate need to understand. Cotta provides the perfect, less emotional foil to Christensen’s more emotional portrayal of HER. All three complement each other perfectly. Open air performance offers its distinct challenges, but Arthur’s actors hold the attention in spite of any outside distraction. Arthur keeps the action tight and flowing, finding movement to create a dance of emotion where dialogue could too readily simply become a to and fro flow between two actors.  Arthur maintains a Brechtian touch that invites us not to become subsumed by the relationships but to stand apart and judge. This is not to diminish the dramatic effect of the performances, but rather to heighten our engagement with the words and the actions.
Julia Christensen and Richard Cotta in HOW ARE YOU?
How Are You compels an audience to become immersed in the relationships and the text. Production is minimalist with two chairs and a ground-cloth, simply but effectively imagined by set designer Ara Nuri Steel. Russell Goldsmith’s sound design is selectively and appropriately chosen  and there is no superfluity in effect or design to distract from the performances.

I came away from this production, excited by the initiative, entertained and thoughtfully engaged by the short play and very impressed by the performances. If this is the quality of young performers now finding a place for themselves on the public stage in works that are also original and speak to a contemporary audience, then The Public Theatre, Aspen Island Theatre Company and The Anchor Theatre Company lend heart to the future of theatre that looks to the future and is not manacled by tradition, but has learnt from it.
I hope that The Public Theatre is not a one off, but will join the likes of Boho Interactive and the You Are Here Festival to give voice to an emerging generation of theatre makers and in time have an impact on Australia’s cultural landscape.  Perhaps ArtsACT, conspicuous by its absence from the acknowledgements, could look down from its lofty floor in the Nara Building and recall the long defunct National Festival of Australian Theatre, and see its possible re-emergence in the efforts of such producers as Julian Hobba and Katie Cawthorne. In the meantime, make sure that you do taste the treats in this venture before The Public Theatre closes its doors on November 29th.