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Review: Control at Red Stitch Theatre

By Megan Mitchell

I was fortunate enough to see the world premiere of Control at Red Stitch Theatre on Wednesday night. The night started off with nibbles and two free drink vouchers (I should attend opening nights more often) and simply got better from there.

Control was written by Keziah Warner as part of the INK program, a collaboration between the Red Stitch ensemble and select Australian playwrights. Warner’s script was beautifully crafted, balancing the exploration of the science-fiction setting and the character relationships. It is a joy to watch sci-fi theatre done well, and the simplicity of the stage and costumes, as well as the organic world building within the dialogue allowed the story to flourish.

The play was broken into three distinct parts, loosely connected along one timeline. The four actors (Christina O’Neill, Dushan Philips, Samuel Rowe, Naomi Rukavina) were given wonderful opportunities to extend themselves in characterisation, accent and dynamics, and they did so exceptionally well. O’Neill’s accents were close to perfect, and Rukavina managed to make her characters completely distinct but equally alive. The play opened on a Big-Brother-style reality show, set on a space ship travelling to Mars.

I immediately was reminded of Black Mirror and Doctor Who, in that the premise has futuristic aspects but is grounded in reality. The cast are wickedly funny, and are able to bring humanity and honesty in the archetypal characters that populate reality TV, even directly poking fun at themselves (“I’m meant to be the sexy, fun one!”). Their relationships with the AI ‘Big Brother’ on board allow us to see a different side of them, in addition to fleshing out this disturbing-but-plausible reality show universe. The contrast that unfolds between their televised personas that win them money and their personal selves which are penalised for being too boring is glorious to watch.

The second part was a little less memorable than the first; taking place 20 years into the future, in a world where childhood memories are stored externally and commodified. The two women discuss their jobs, their morals and the changing world around them as they interact with their AI superior and difficult customers. This particular act didn’t have the same easy, consistent humour as the first act but it didn’t need to; it provided an unsettling perspective on capitalisation, privilege and ever-changing morality chasing to catch up with ever-changing technology. Whilst it was an interesting exploration, I found this particular aspect of the world harder to follow and therefore more difficult to become immersed in.

The third part was probably my favourite and held the audience in rapture from the beginning to end. Rukavina is a humanoid AI, ‘Esta’ who is learning to become a teacher. Isabelle is her human tutor, manually adjusting her levels of emotion, ability and personality to curate the perfect primary school educator. Over the course of her training, we see Esta exhibit unusual curiosity and humanity that gets under Isabelle’s skin and blossoms between them into a complex and yet innocent relationship. The two women execute perfect comedic timing, powerful pathos and what feels like an entire novel’s worth of a relationship into a very short space of time. The writing seamlessly taught the audience about the rules of the world and their dynamic without exposition, and the repetitive nature of Esta’s ‘reboots’ provided structure that gave the actors room to extend themselves. Rukavina’s characterisation and finely-tuned emotional changes were a joy to behold, and the vulnerability and presence O’Neill brought to Isabelle stayed with you long after the show.

The direction was finely tuned to make the actors and the overarching story feel very unified and polished. The choice of having a simple stage set up with subtle lighting changes and few props allowed the story to shine through the performance. The whole production has done an exceedingly good job, and I look forward to seeing more works by anyone involved.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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