Review by Kate Gaul
A Hundred Words for Snow is a solo performance by English playwright Tatty Hennessey. The debut play won the Heretic Voices Monologue Competition and was first produced at the Arcola Theatre, London, in 2018. A new production was performed at the 2018 VAULT Festival, where it was the winner of a VAULT Origins Award for outstanding new work. It then toured the UK, with a run at the Trafalgar Studios in London's West End in 2019.
This production - presented by Melbourne’s Theatre Works - is directed and produced by Gavin Roach and performed by Eddie Patterson. Theatre Works has opened a sister venue in Inkerman St, St Kilda in what used to be an Explosives Factory, a carpet factory and in recent times a residence. Now, a simple makeover provides a neat but functional performance space that suggests a multitude of possibilities. The position of the lighting rig does rather suggest where most will choose to perform but I hope artists won’t limit their imaginations for the use of this resonant space. Hard to find? Well, only once, right?
Gavin Roche’s production exploits the intimacy of the venue to explore the piece’s themes of loss and coming of age. When teenage Rory’s geography teacher dad – a man with a passion for explorers - dies in a car crash she discovers in his papers at home that he’d planned a trip to the Arctic. So, of course, Rory with her father’s ashes and mum’s credit card run away on an adventure to the geographical north pole to make good this missing experience of his life. In the footsteps of all the dead beardy explorers before her, and before Mum finds out they've gone.
The story is charming enough. It leans into the fate of intrepid explorers of the past, the plight of the modern polar bear, the undisclosed or foot-noted histories of female explorers. The politics is lightly touched and the production runs over a lot of this pretty quickly. The Rory in this production discovers little – it’s as if she knows it all. Or expects us to. This does create a production the feels all a bit one note: few discoveries, nothing that stops our character (or us) in our tracks. I wondered if the choice to present the work with an English accent added to this homogeneity. Positively, the performance and production are unfussy, direct and focussed.
Rory – short for Aurora - shares with us her father’s enthusiasm for the cold northern climes and the great explorers of history, such as Shackleton, Franklin, Peary, and Nansen. We learn much about North Pole exploration. Franklin gets quite a chunk of time but of course being an English play makes no reference to his Australian connections – just mildly infuriating for an Australian audience (well, for me!)
Rory’s journey is one of awakening. Her first sexual experience (described in some detail); her emotional detachment and inevitable melt; facts of life in a sub-zero world as well as unexpected descriptions of plane crashes and frozen bodies are memorable. Performer, beguiling Eddie Patterson, infuses much of the text with warmth, and humour. The production s beautifully supported by a haunting sound design by Conor Ross. Spencer Herd’s lighting is functional and where possible brings just a little bit of magic. The design (uncredited) is neither literal nor symbolic – a light weight tent serves as a backdrop to the work. Not at all useful in the Arctic. The all-white costume (save a navy woollen beanie) – not the clothes of an explorer – but do help us imagine an all-white world that is oft described.
Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen – Norwegian polymath, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, and amongst all else an explorer has the last word - ‘Love is life’s snow. It falls deepest and softest into the gashes left by the fight – whiter and purer than snow itself.’
All in all – charming, lightweight with some great factoids and descriptions. It’s worth visiting this new venue and you may even shed a tear at the end (but to give it away would be a spoiler – so go and find out how Rory’s adventure wraps!)