Review: Harbinger

by Jane

I’d been suffering with a fever and stomach bug the week before I saw Harbinger, and it was rather horrible, but coming in waves, so I started Harbinger okay.  It then hit me again towards the end of the play, so there was a portion which I struggled to absorb.  It then stuck around for most of the week after I saw the play, and when I finally thought I’d kicked it, it came back while I was writing this review.   I apologise in advance for the level of delirium this was written in.

The Harbinger promo flyer

A short re-enactment, detailing where the marketing for Harbinger came from (in a way which actually, I am informed my Matt Whittet in the comments, is not the way marketing happens at all.  Life is so much funnier in my own head!)

In 2009

Sean Riley: “Look, I’m really sorry Chris, I know I said I would have Skip Miller’s Hit Songs for you, but it just isn’t going to be ready by next year’s season.  Do you think I could have some extra time?  Just until 2011.”

Chris Drummond:  “That will be fine, Sean.  We’ll find someone else to write a play really really quickly.”

Back in the Brink office

Drummond:  “Who do you think we can get?  That Whittet kid, he’s writing something for that Windmill lot, isn’t he?  If we overlap their season with our rehearsal period, we wouldn’t even need to pay for his accommodation to be in Adelaide or anything.  And Windmill always gets good reviews, so we can surely sell some tickets off that!”

He calls Whittet.

Drummond: “Matthew!  Look, we’re not going to get this play we’re supposed to show next year ready in time.  I know we usually go through a long and exacting development process, but you can write us up something really quickly, yes?”

Matthew Whittet: “Certainly!  I can already feel it!  It will be called Harbinger, and it will be all about omens and signs and it will be creepy and amazing!  And pop culture!  I like pop culture!”

Drummond: “Okay, well, we really need to get marketing material out right away.  Can you talk to our marketing team now?”

Whittet: “Oh oh can it have a soundtrack?!!!”

Drummond: “Just call the marketing team, okay?”

Whittet calls the Marketing team.

Whittet: “There will be a vampire!”

Marketing: “Right, but what does that have to do with a harbinger?”

Whittet: (ignoring them)“And Nathan O’Keefe will be in it!”

Marketing: “So will Nathan O’Keefe be the vampire?”

Whittet: “Yes!”

Marketing: (grumbling to selves) “Does he even know what harbinger means?  Or did he just like that episode of Star Trek?”

Nonetheless, they take photos of O’Keefe dressed as a vampire.

Whittet: “Oh.”

Marketing: “What?”

Whittet: “It’s nothing… it’s just, why is he dressed like that?”

Marketing: “I thought you said he was a vampire.”

Whittet: “Don’t be silly, he’s a shape shifter!  No, there is this girl, see?  She is the vampire.”

Marketing: “Well, we can’t very well take the photos again, can we?”

Whittet: “Well, just come up with some witty tag line with some sort of popular culture reference and you’ll be fine!”

Marketing: “How about ‘Boy meets girl, girl eats boy’ with a suggestive ellipsis at the end?”

Whittet: “Perfect!  That is exactly what I want! Completely captures the feel of the play!”

Marketing: (grumbling to selves) “It would be nice if the title captured the feel of the play.”

Nonetheless, they make the posters.

In 2010

Ten months later, the marketing team settle in to watch the show.

Marketing:  “Wait, so the old guy is the vampire?  That’s it.  No more marketing for Matthew Whittet!”

Confusing missteps in marketing aside, Harbinger was a reaching night at the theatre: the sort of theatre which reaches out from the stage, and plays with it’s fingertips up and down your arms, so at fist you want to laugh: it’s a tickle, a delight, a comforting feeling from someone you love.  But then, it gets a little creepy.  The running up and down your arms, it changes.  It’s not nice.  It starts to send a shiver up your spine.  You want to bat those arms away, but soon they are grabbing you, pinning you to your seat.  You can’t move.  Or yell.  Or breathe.  And then, it will be nice again, you’re allowed a laugh, it’s fine!  It’s just a tickle!  What were you worried about?  But don’t get to settled, because the tickle will change back, to a sinister slide, a grip.  A grip that will squeeze until you shatter.  Until you break.  And there is nothing left.

In a word, Harbinger is arresting theatre.  And sometimes that’s exactly what you want.

As he’s walking home, we get the idea that Chris (Nathan O’Keefe) is a bit lonely, a bit of a recluse.  He scurries home, backpack on, shoulders hunched.  But on this night, something is different.  On his way, he passes Maddy (Yael Stone), lying on the road, covered in blood.  She insists, no, no, I’m fine, go home, but he’s a good guy, our Chris, and he is going to help her: his damsel in distress.

As she drops to the floor in a fit, everything gets a little more sinister.  Clearly, she has been bitten by a vampire, and she will become one herself at dawn.  (Being the eternal sceptic that I am, even in a theatre, it did take me a little to come around to the conceit that vampires do exist in this world, and it wasn’t just Chris being a little crazy.)  Chris could run, but no, he’s made this commitment.  He is sticking this out with Maddy, he’s going to get her through this.  Because he’s a good guy, our Chris.

And, also, Maddy is cute.  And a girl.  A cute girl.  Talking to Chris!

Maddy (Yael Stone) and Chris (Nathan O'Keefe). Photo by Chris Herzfeld. (Why the such poor quality, Brink?)

But she needs some cheering up.  So Chris brings out his skills (You know, like nunchuku skills, bow hunting skills, computer hacking skills.  Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.).   What is Chris’s skill, I hear you ask?

He is a shape shifter.

Not a werewolf, as I thought when he “shape shifted” into someone with a moustache: the first point in the transformation, went my mind.

Okay okay okay.  But he is a shape shifter.

And I’ve got to tell you something.

You haven’t seen Nathan O’Keefe, until you’ve seen him dressed like this:

Yes, yes that is David Bowie.

And singing this:

And wiping the sweet off his face with a towel.  Which he threw into the audience.  Which I caught.

Matthew Whittet and me and front row seats, I think we have a thing going on here.

But try as he might, turning into David Bowie circa 1972 isn’t going to a) find out who dun it, or b) really make Maddy any better (giddier, yes, better, no).  So back to Chris’s house they go, to concoct a plan: to find the creature who did this to Maddy.

And kill them.

All through the two-header scenes, Whittet’s text and Drummond’s direction play with the careful balance of the tension and the humour, not forsaking one for the other.  This feat is made all the more simple through the wonderful casting of O’Keefe and Stone.  O’Keefe is well known to Adelaide audiences, and I would say he has become one of the few actors in this town whose name alone can sell tickets, for good reasons.  He plays well with drama and with humour, he acts with every millimetre of his body, and his characters are always filled with heart: Harbinger is no exception.  Stone is well known among Sydney theatre circles, and it was a treat to have her performing in Adelaide.  To Maddy she brought strength, and guts, and a heart wrenching vulnerability.   As a pair (seemingly mismatched in height) O’Keefe and Stone work off one-another charmingly.

The play (and yes, my illness addled brain, but others have supported me in these feelings), however, lost focus on when Chris and Maddy find the house of John (Alex Menglet): the vampire.   The script suffers for losing its drive and focus: when the imperative of finding John is realised the play stalls while Maddy and Chris struggle with direction.  The confrontation between the pair and John is drawn out, and confusing as Whittet tries to trick the audience with reveals and parallels between the situation of the play and stories of abuse.  This section of the script would benefit from development, to bring it more in line with the tightness and focus the remainder of Harbinger brings us.

After this messy confrontation, the conclusion to the plot suffers from using a dues ex machina, something that Whittet also used to conclude Fugitive. In that case I was more apt to forgive, as it came of an otherwise technically strong script.  Coming out of a script which had been unravelling, the device is less forgivable.

John (Alex Menglet) and Maddy (Yael Stone). Photo by Chris Herzfeld.

It’s not all lost: as Drummond pulls out all his stops in its beautiful simplicity of the final moments, with a monologue by Whittet filled with tender pain, delivered by Stone in a beautiful sorrow that comes from the loss of direction which follows so many to university.  It is heart wrenching, and yet not despairing.

It was glorious.

Simplicity was also found in the set (designed by Wendy Todd): the Space Theatre set up with the seats curving around two sides, and the long, straight stage up two steps, with the cyc circling two sides (lots of pairs in this play, it seems).   Simple sets and props are delivered by stagehands, or fall from the ceiling.   Some quick changes, a slight jump in the action of a scene, appear with under blinder lights (lighting by David Gadsen), which didn’t work for those of us sitting slightly to the sides of the action.  I also question why they were brought in for the mid-point set change at all.  One of the strengths of this production is it doesn’t strive away from the complexities of theatre and the unique challenges it brings: two stagehands are brought right into the action.   Right in your face: this is theatre.  This is contrived.  We’re people, we’re not magic.

But we are pretty cool.

From O’Keefe’s shape shifter costume changes to a jug of blood slowly pouring over Stone’s shoulder and across the stage, the stagehands in their black are front and centre.  To try and hide them for a set change then seems superfluous.  Particularly as without having the audience flush to the stage (and thus the lighting rig), for some of us the blinding didn’t really do much.  (Also annoying, I did notice O’Keefe and Stone playing with clothes at the back of the stage, but noticed no change in their appearance…)

While with some missteps, overall the strengths of the production more than make up for its weaknesses.  If Harbinger goes on to have another life (which, if rumours are true, it will), I hope it will be afforded the development that it needs to solidify the script, because with this team it could be something special.

Brink Productions present Harbinger by Matthew Whittet.  Directed by Chris Drummond, design by Wendy Todd, composition by Stuart Day, lighting design by David Gadsden, sound design by Mick Jackson, movement by Larissa McGowan, produced by Kay Jamieson.  With Yael Stone, Nathan O’Keefe, and Alex Menglet.