Review: Afterplay at La Mama HQ - Melb Fringe

Review by Ellis Koch Across every production you or I will ever see there is a monumental amount of hard work that goes on behind the scenes. If you stand around in theatre foyers during intermission or at the end of a show you will hear paying members of the audience discuss what they liked or what they didn't like about the performance that they just witnessed. There is no malice and often no real professional background to back it up - it's just a simple confession of what they did or did not like about what they saw. It is not a denigration of the hard work that happened in the weeks and months prior to the performance - many audience members probably aren't even aware of the sort of sweat that is involved in bringing a play to life. That isn't a critique of the audience at all, by the way. It's just an observation that, like any industry we are only involved in from the aspect of the consumer, we can only vaguely imagine the work involved in the creation of the product. Every single production involves hard work. But there is hard work . . . And then there is Hard Work. Hard Work is something you notice when you've been involved in the industry. It's a rarity and it's a delight to witness and it needs to be upheld as the ideal standard to strive for. So, with that preamble, please indulge me as I gush about Afterplay.


The premise of the play, written by Brian Friel, is simple enough - two well-known Chekhovian characters from different plays, Sonya (Uncle Vanya) and Andrey (Three Sisters), have a chance meeting in a small cafe in Moscow some twenty years after the events of their respective plays. It's a One Act play - a fifty minute conversation. And by golly . . . It's wonderful.


As the audience enters we are greeted with a warm opening - Sonya (Margaret Mills) is seated at a round, central table writing in a book. A diary, one imagines. A smaller table sits to the left and an even smaller table, with a candle upon it, is positioned to the far right. A very simple set design, by Lara Week (who also designed the appropriate period costumes), that doesn't crowd the attention and allows all of your focus to be placed upon the actors. The design could have gotten away with being even simpler as the two side tables are barely utilised . . . But this a miniscule quibble as they do not detract from the production in any way.


The lighting design (Bronwyn Pringle) is simple and warm. There are shadows cast on the back of the stage that could have been mitigated by an extra lamp or two from the front but may also have been left in to mimic the shadows that arise from candlelight being the only lighting source. Again, small quibbles. They don't distract. The simplicity of both set and lighting only serve to enhance the immaculate performance of the two actors on stage.


After the audience is seated Andrey (John Bolton) enters with lukewarm soup and brown bread in hand and the two characters spring to life, warmly roused by the presence of each other. The actors then proceed to deliver a delightful, funny and heart-warming moment between two people. They never miss a beat. They never take an errant breath. Mr. Bolton plays a wonderfully roguish, charming, harmless charlatan. Ms. Mills plays a delightfully sweet hopeful. And while the play is about two Chekhovian characters and sprinkled liberally with references to Chekhov's works the two actors deliver the material so well that you feel as though you could be watching a conversation between anybody. They perfectly capture the pace of excitement that comes with connecting, even if ever so briefly, with somebody new. They charm each other and us with the revelations of their lives. They are so convincing in this portrayal you will fondly remember your own such interactions that have happened in your own life. The people who ignite a spark in you, that represent possibilities and potentials . . . and are then gone.


This is what Hard Work looks like on stage. To perfectly capture the timing and the energy of such an interaction while completely masking craft. To maintain it for fifty minutes without faltering. The level of preparation, the hours upon hours of rehearsal . . . All evident by how invisible the actors are. I asked director Kirsten von Bibra about their rehearsal process and she told me they had been working on it for several months, that they had run the full play at least twenty times before opening night. That, dear reader, is Hard Work. It is a rarity to witness on Australian stages. It's an absolute delight to see and I urge you to see this single moment between two characters. The celebration of living in the company of another, for even a brief moment of time. Kirsten von Bibra has excelled in bringing to life this language-based play from a playwright compared favourably to Beckett, Pinter and Miller and referred to as an "Irish Chekhov".


The play closes with Andrey taking up the writer’s position, alone. The audience leaves, awed and delighted.

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