Thursday, July 21, 2016

Extinction by Hannie Rayson

Extinction by Hannie Rayson.  Red Stitch Actors Theatre and Geelong Performing Arts Centre production at Canberra Theatre Centre Playhouse, July 20-23, 2016.

Director: Nadia Tass; Designers: Set – Shaun Gurton; Lighting, Photography and Video – David Parker; Sound and AV – Daniel Nixon; Costume – Sophie Woodward; Composer – Paul Grabowsky; Sound-system – Russell Goldsmith.

Cast: Brett Cousins – the veterinarian; Natasha Herbert – his sister, the academic ecologist; Ngaire Dawn Fair – his zoologist putative wife; Colin Lane – the ‘evil’ mining magnate.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
July 20

At first Hannie Rayson’s Extinction seems rather like a theatre-in-education exercise for adults.  This is not a bad thing.  It’s good to see a play raising the big issues of species extinction and climate change caused by human behaviour.  It’s also fascinating to see an ending in which at least the immediate future looks better for the animals in the forest (the Otway Ranges in Victoria) than for the other animals in the built environment of academia in Geelong (for non-Aussie readers, pronounced Jilóng).

This is where the design team have done an especially wonderful job.  The locations of the many short scenes shift rapidly from surrounding forest with complete sound-scape (the tangled shapes and colours of the Australian bush) to the straight-edged reflective glass and concrete of the modern university.  Minimal furniture is moved on and off in dim-outs, while the video on the cyclorama transports us from location to location.  On the screen the computer, phone and security-door images – all essential to modern academic research – allow us to appreciate what the characters are seeing on their touch screens.

For once, here was technology entirely and properly integrated into the stage text.  I assume that the published play will include the dvd ready for playing while you read, or for a later director to use in a new production.

Acting was excellent in a play where the characters are, in a sense, written from the outside in.  Each has a characteristic attitude towards those big issues which defines their behaviour.  An interesting contrast in recent Australian playwriting is Andrew Bovell in Things I Know To Be True (reviewed here June 9, 2016) where characters grow from the inside out.  Both ways of working can work equally well.

In Extinction the Vet operates on his sick or injured animals, from cows, cats and dogs to tiger quolls, according to the Hippocratic Oath – which he takes to include applying euthanasia when there is no chance of normal living without pain.

His sister, the academic Head of Ecology Research, cannot reasonably refuse tainted money to rehabilitate the forest habitat for her tiger quoll study (a parallel situation to Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara where an arms manufacturer will supply funds for the Salvation Army).

The Vet’s potential wife, a Santiago zoologist leading the quoll research, heart warmingly mothers every animal – her oath does not include euthanasia.

Into this triumvirate Rayson injects a locally-born and raised farmer’s son who has become a coal mining magnate, yet with fond memories of his grandfather who, expressing his love for nature, had logged the forest.  Today’s realist offers the money made from open-cut coal mining, which both destroys good agricultural land and continues to worsen climate warming, to fund the tiger quoll research.  He may be ‘evil’ but he is also surprisingly sexually attractive to both women.

The play could be comedy, but only in parts.  It could be tragedy, as it also is in part.  It could be a sentimental story of hope despite adversity.   There is hope, but not mawkish sentimentality.  It’s an interesting study of life in the face of certain death, far beyond an academic concern about the extinction of quolls. 

The Vet’s story contains a secret that I must not reveal here, at least while Extinction is still a new play.  You must see the show to catch my drift.  You should see this show in any case, for its challenging ideas – and not least for the quality of its design and execution.