Review: The Seizure

by Jane

Written and directed by Benedict Hardie, The Seizure is nothing more than a tiny glance into a tiny fraction of giant story. Wars rage; teams of men conspire; battlefields are filled with the fighting and the dead; streets are filled with the starving. And then, alone on an island is Philoctetes (Christopher Brown); left to rot, his foot literally, after being bit by a serpent and abandoned by his crew ten years earlier. On the island, he is kept company only by a crow (HaiHa Le).

It has been prophesied that the only way the war will be won is at the hands of Neoptolemus (Naomi Rukavina), Philoctetes, and his bow and arrow. Odysseus (Brian Lipson) and Neoptolemus sail to the island to recover Philoctetes, and his arrow.

The Seizure shows us this: two people on a rock in ocean, Neoptolemus trying to convince Philoctetes to return and end the war. We are shown what could almost be relegated to a footnote, and, indeed, it is almost presented as such. Lipson opens for us with a prologue of all that came before, and ends with an epilogue of all that is to come. We are offered nothing more than a cursory glance at a point in the middle.

Even within the production things are sparse. There is much left unsaid in Hardie’s text: the play is almost as much about the pauses as about the words. The stage (designer Zoe Rouse): a continuous drop of white falling from the ceiling to the foot of the playing area, punctuated with smears of black ink and only dressed with props which are essential, also embraces the emptiness. The play, a story between stories, embraces the communication outside of words, what is said with empty space.

Neoptolemus and Philoctetes must navigate the uncomfortablness: of their shared cultural histories; each other’s manipulation and unique powers – his now island home, his arrow, her two good feet, her knowledge of the present off the island; the fear they both hold – he of returning to a world which rejected him, her of having to return to a world which is crumbling. The casualties of war aren’t only measurable by body counts on battlefields. Little wars, personal losses, independent struggles build up, too.

The work all lies in the storytelling and the storytellers. Under Hardie’s direction, Rukavina and Brown steer through this space with a quietness through which, almost surprisingly, a great tension builds up. A tension wrought out of silence, not of noise, so that it is almost unnoticed, until the work ended and could feel the tension I carried. Also by the nature of the work, so small, so much “middle”, the conclusion of the play comes as something of a surprise; and thus the tension did, too.

Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting and Alister Mew’s sound design are subtle, but meaningfully inject into this tautness; the intensity of not only the relationship between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, but the overhand of Odysseus and the overseeing of the Crow.

Hardie’s production is unbound by a specific time and space. It’s a play of the Ancient Greece it comes from, it’s a play of the Australia we live in, it’s neither of these things. His words carry with them an easy colloquialism while also being bound up in a poetry; they and the play capture you in a world which is effortlessly familiar, while not being a world which can be anchored at all. And I think that is the true strength of the production: in a tiny story, on a tiny island, from a giant story 2000 years ago, Hardie and his team have found something small which feels like truth.

Now to diverge at the end of a review: one of the conversations I had after my review of Antigone questioned my calling in of interstate examples of companies presenting old texts in contemporary contexts. This person was saying that the reason the Greeks are timeless is because of the absolute strength in the stories, in the writing, in the way our culture still carries on and passes on their stories and their myths. They don’t need to be updated, he said, because everything is already there. I told him that one of the things I try and do – and possibly, or probably, fail at – is try and put Adelaide theatre into a broader context beyond what is happening within the boundary of the Parklands. Perhaps, I said, what I was after wasn’t in particular an “updated” version, but a justification of whatever version is used.

Certainly, being a new version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes, Hardie’s play is by this very fact modern. It isn’t carried with a frame of obvious relevance or modernity. But new words in new mouths gives an immediacy, a naturalness to the work which an old translation – written to highlight a certain time or not, could never do.

Both Edwin Kemp Attrill’s Antigone and Hardie’s The Seizure played in some version of an unspecified timelessness, but the new words and pace of The Seizure gives us as an audience much more than the old words of Anouilh’s Antigone. And that, I think, is what I crave when I sit in an audience.

The Hayloft Project presents The Seizure, written and directed by Benedict Hardie after Sophocles’ Philoctetes. Dramaturg Anne-Louise Sarks, set and costume designer Zoe Rouse, lighting designer Lucy Birkinshaw, sound designer Alister Mew. With Christopher Brown, HaiHa Le, Brian Lipson and Naomi Rukavina. At Studio 246, Melbourne. Season Closed.