Review by Bradley Ward
It’s been difficult. Things have changed recently. We’ve been physically forced apart and had our community lines redrawn. Even when we’re allowed outside, it can still seem like we’ve lost some space. For the people at re:group, this isn’t a new trend. The 21st century has seen the consistent closing of wonderful community spaces whose purposes have been subsumed by technological advances. Spotify has seen record stores suffering; Amazon has taken down several major bookstores; and, most tragically, Netflix has killed the video rental business.
Based out of Sydney, Wollongong and Hobart, re:group are an acclaimed performance collective who specialise in interrogating the space between cinema and theatre. After a few years away from the stage, they return to Sydney with their newest show Coil, which sees them tackling the challenge of recording an original short film before a live audience using only three cast/crew members, a single camera controlled by a Nintendo Wii remote, and a half-stage set that serves as a loving recreation of a Blockbusteresque video rental store.
The experience of Coil unfolds in two halves: the first half consists of lead performer Steve Wilson-Alexander throwing himself around the stage – chased by his cameraman, Solomon Thomas – as he collects the necessary shots required to make their film. Throughout this exercise, he monologues to the audience, with the subject matter swinging from the pandemic, to the closure of local video rental businesses, to the art of acting, to the history of re:group itself. Wilson-Alexander interweaves his observations on societal trends with stories of a deeply personal nature, speaking candidly to the audience about past members of re:group, the difficulty of sustaining a career in the arts, and the pain of lost friendships. After the relative calmness of the first half, the second half explodes with frenzied energy as the audience gets to watch the titular short film in its entirety – which is an impressive feat considering only half of it has been filmed so far. Through seamless editing trickery, the pre-filmed segments are combined with a live stream of the continued performance on stage, creating the complete story of a video rental clerk obsessed with the past and his old friend/co-worker who is determined to move on. Together, the two halves of Coil paint a colourful multimedia portrait of loss and nostalgia, simultaneously silly yet sincere and melancholic.
The technical challenges involved in mounting a show of this kind would cause a lesser company to crumble, but re:group’s years of experience in this theatrical style are on full display in Coil. Solomon Thomas’s work behind the camera was exemplary, capturing captivating shots in quick succession and with seaming ease, a testament to either a strict company work ethic or natural cinematographic ability. Equal praise should be given to Carly Young, who spent the first half of the show switching between multiple hats, bouncing back and forth from the tech desk to be an acting partner, extra, stagehand and editor as the moment called for it. Was the tech perfect? No, of course not. However, it was far better than it had any right to be, with a consistency and quality that outclassed many mainstage productions. Even in those moments where understandable mistakes were made, the pace never faltered, the humour never dropped, and the crew never seemed anything but in complete control.
The show was anchored ably by an animated yet layered performance by Wilson-Alexander, who played close to a dozen roles, including himself, and often up to four people in any given scene. Consistently expressive and energetic, he created laughs from the smallest of moments and approached every scene with enthusiasm and sincerity. As enjoyable as his solo performance was though, Coil’s highlights were found in the scenes between Wilson-Alexander and Young. Quiet and honest, Wilson-Alexander and Young’s performances gave voice to the profound sense of loss that permeated the entire show. Shining on both stage and screen, they delivered a denouement that twisted the show’s singular moment of human connection into a simple yet heart wrenching image.
All in all, Coil is a risky experiment. Not risky due to its technical difficulty or virtuosic performances, but due to the intimacy of the stories being told. Re:group sets themselves difficult obstacles, having to educate their audience about the history of their collective, then endear us to the personalities that once inhabited the group, and then make us feel the absence of those people. Similar shows have graced Sydney’s stages and stumbled over such obstacles, coming across as saccharine, indulgent or unnecessarily confronting for its focus on reality. Thankfully, re:group makes it work. This show is personal, sincere, well-written and well-performed, finding humour and heartbreak in loss and nostalgia at a time when those feelings are as painful and widespread as ever. Ultimately cathartic, Coil is a perfect example of why re:group is one of the most interesting theatre groups operating in Australia today.