Muff, the latest production from independent Adelaide theatre company five.point.one, is heavy, hard hitting theatre that leaves its audience with no easy to digest emotions. Written by Van Badham and directed here by Alison Howard, the work explores women, sex and relationships; a horrific, random rape of a young woman and the threads from this event that continue to wrap and bind their way into lives years after the physical injuries have healed.
Eve (Claire Glenn) has moved back to London from China, a country she moved to in order to reclaim herself, and has moved into the spare room in the flat of her ex-boyfriend, Tom (Brad Williams). There, she has to negotiate how to return home and meeting Tom’s new girlfriend Manpreet (Serena Moorghen), while Tom must come to grips with a relationship that fell apart after Eve was raped.
Myf Cadwallader’s set casts a sterility over the proceedings: furnishings of white against walls of opaque white plastic and steel frames, in corners lie discarded limbs of mannequins The walls are repositioned to create different spaces: opening up one half of the stage or the other for the bedroom or lounge, or closing off the space to create the bathroom seen only in shadows. The cast move these walls slowly and calmly. Despite the tension in the work, Howard paces the actors to a steady and slow beat. In this environment, her direction frequently casts a clinical eye over the proceedings. These people, it feels, are there to be watched, their pasts and presents there to be analysed, but empathy or connection is a step too far.
Through this clinical lens, Badham’s text brings up interesting questions in relationships and sex: Eve and Manpreet discuss, or rather argue over, radically different views of the sexualisation of women: on pornography, of waxing, of violence and sexual games. Badham’s characters experience violence that is real, and a game of violence that exists invited and within boundaries in a relationship. These different strands compliment and fight against each other, creating a world that is messy and complex, representing the multiplicities of people and the way they each see the world.
Her text is at its most compelling when time starts to fracture and we spin out of the linear structure that binds much of the work. In these scenes Eve and Tom relive the nightmarish realities of that night through monologue; or a scene splinters and we return to its start, this new reality different than the one that came before it. It’s here that the work has its most ferocious energy: both Glenn and Willams given the opportunities to explode in exploring their characters, Badham creating a level of dizziness and confusion in these heightened realities that catches the audience up in the heart-pounding tension. It’s here, too, that Howard’s direction allows the audience to get caught up: when there is less that can be scientifically analysed, the work loses some of its clinical edge.
At first, it feels slightly jarring for a world premiere by an Australian playwright to be set in London, even with the knowledge Badham lived and worked there for ten years. This soon settles, though, with a big city reality of London that could never be replicated in a town like Adelaide.
All three characters have traits that are somewhat chaotic and unlikable, but we’re never asked to like them: just to watch them. We see Glenn’s Eve both on the edge of breakdown in her most vulnerable moments, and in moments of rediscovering herself and her power. Glenn gives her character the most light and shade of the cast; her performance at its strongest when Eve is at her weakest.
Of all the characters, Tom has the least agency over his life, never being able to move on from what happened to his then girlfriend. Williams’ performance of a character that tries to remain steadfast is strongest when it is understated in its struggle of a character trying to live in the present yet unable to leave his past. Moorghen’s Manpreet asks the most out of the audience: she is headstrong and acidic, and Moorghen has not quite found enough balance in the character to pair against the other cast members.
Chris Petridis’ lights and Tristan Louth-Robins’ sound add to Cadwallader’s harsh industrial tinged set. The lighting rig is heavy with ultra-violent lights that crackle on and off, harsh shadows appear, a single drip of light spills down the back wall. It’s strongly evocative, and often uncomfortable. Louth-Robin’s sound is often muted, sounding like it is coming through walls and other lives. This, too, creates discomfort: there is an undercurrent always running thought this production which is is impossible to place a finger on.
In the end, Badham leaves the play with no resolution. She doesn’t ask her audience to come away with a simple message, a feeling, or action. If anything, the audience leaves shocked and stunned. The splintering which made the work so interesting affects the way we view all the scenes, and calls into question the reliability of the story we are being told: can we take any of the subsequent events Badham shows us at face value? Or is this, perhaps, reading too much into the structure? In the final moments of the work I waited to be shown the alternate reality, and instead all that came was the blackout and an emotional thud.
Until the end of 2011, Corey McMahon was the primary name associated with five.point.one. Established in 2009 as an ensemble based company, with McMahon taking on most of the directorial roles it is him that the company has most closely been associated with in the eyes of the audience. The plays he directed for the company were contemporary works that frequently asked a lot out of the audience, and the world that McMahon explored on stage was rarely a happy one. When McMahon left the company in a move to Sydney their future seemed in limbo. With no productions staged by the company in 2012, many questioned where they would end up.
Now without a director in the ensemble, the company’s new approach is to bring in outside directors, such as Howard. How this will shape the future aesthetics of the company remains to be seen, but for now Muff sits comfortably in the five.point.one we know while also moving the company forward. It’s difficult, it pulls no punches, it’s something no one else in Adelaide is showing.
After the down year of 2012, they seem poised as a company to reclaim their position as one of the strongest independent theatre companies in Adelaide. It will be interesting to watch where the future takes them.
five.point.one presents Muff by Van Badham. Directed by Alison Howard, designed by Myf Cadwallader, lighting design by Chris Petridis, sound design by Tristan Louth-Robins. With Claire Glenn, Serena Moorghen and Brad Williams. At the Bakehouse Theatre until May 25. More information and tickets.
Disclosure: I worked with designer Myf Cadwallader on the Melbourne season of Sepia. Alison Howard is of no relation.