Review by Thomas Gregory
In 1897, Arthur Schnitzler wrote a play that presented ten scenes of couples before or after sex. Each subsequent scene would involve a partner from the previous, with the final scene “looping” with the first. “Reigen”, “La Ronde”, or “Hands Around” was highly controversial even when it was finally staged in 1920. Schnitzler was attacked as a “pornographer” and was even charged with crimes against morality.
The play has subsequently been translated, performed, and adapted many times. David Hare’s “The Blue Room” and Stephen Dietz’s “American La Ronde” have both been praised for taking Schnitzler’s conceit and making completely new productions.
Melbourne writer Daniel Nellor has taken this same idea to write Ignis. Set during one of our country’s ever-existing bushfires, Nellor’s play follows a cast of characters somewhat similar to Schnitzler’s, including a sex worker, a minister, and a political candidate. However, the inclusion of a nurse and firefighter allows the play to explore themes more relevant to our own circumstances.
Some of the stories border on the cliched: a political candidate sexually assaulting their staff, a conservative religious figure struggling to come to terms with their sexuality. These scenes ask questions with clear answers. The play’s true strength as a text is in those other scenes, which present more nuanced challenges and make us wonder how we would personally respond. The man who waits until after sex to say he must leave again. The woman who has sex marked in her calendar under the code “admin”.
If the text alone wasn’t exciting enough to see this play, then the production should be. Anthropocene Play Company, who had previously performed a moved reading of the play, chose to present the text by using a series of rooms in the beautiful Toorak Manor. A small audience is guided between rooms where actors climb into bed, use the ensuites, and sit at small tables to work on laptops. It is only one scene that has any semblance of “a set”, with a small corner of the manor turned into a hospital room.
Using these rooms in such a way is unnecessary to the text, and you might be tempted to shrug it off as gimmicky or “a cheap way to have multiple sets”. However, the impact of facing these stories while sitting at the foot of a bed, cannot be understated. We, the audience, are not looking into the lives of these characters from the comfort of behind a fourth wall. Instead, we have invaded their personal space and are complicit in what has occurred behind closed doors. When a character is blocked from leaving, we are just as trapped.
The cast of Ignis is filled with ten of Melbourne’s finest actors. Catherine Morvell opens the play as a tired and vulnerable sex worker hired by a PhD candidate for “research”. Kulan Farah, who plays the student, plays a fine line between academically detached and psychopathic while somehow not being entirely hated in the subsequent scene.
Pia O’Meadhra finds depth in the ambitious political staffer that could easily have been made one-dimensional in less-experienced hands. Sebastian Gunner does a fine job offering a potential Prime Minister who can’t quite believe he has done something wrong.
While there is no bad performance in the show, Clare Larman threatens to steal the night with her performance of Alison. Alison is a brittle character - hard but compromised, more likely to break than yield. Larman’s nuanced performance captures a difficult portrayal of a character that has accepted the consequences of her decisions without excuse or resignation.
Mikhaela Ebony brings a quiet, defiant angle to Rita and her performance ensures the minor sideplot of a missing daughter isn’t ignored by the audience. Jordan Fraser-Trumble is compelling as the frustrated firefighter, and his hilarious portrayal of being on pain relief has just the perfect touch of pathos underneath.
Sophie Muckart’s portrayal of Rachel is one of discouragement without bitterness, and her scene with Ismail Taylor-Kamara is one of the most entertaining performances of the night. Taylor-Kamara’s own portrayal of a minister unwilling to allow himself to be free is far more nuanced than most depictions of characters “in the closet” you will see today, and Tim Clarke’s performance of Antony will make almost every audience member want to take him home to meet their mother.
For a play like this to succeed, there must be a significant level of comfort and trust for every cast and crew member. Director Bronwen Coleman has been able to build and utilise this trust to push the scenes to their emotional limits. While the text is sometimes quite dark, Coleman and the cast find ways to let the comedy within the play shine without making light of the serious messages. You’ll be surprised how often you laugh at a piece that sits a little heavy on your soul when it is over.
There are odd moments when a line is simply said with little consideration to meaning, or a decided physical moment might appear uncomfortable for the actor. The physical acts, whether sexual or violent, are perhaps too tame when placed in the context of such charged performances, although it may be fair to have avoided any gratuitous act that might distract us from the stories themselves.
While perhaps not integral to the play, Caitlin Langridge’s role as guide made the night far more enjoyable than it might have been with her absence. There was never enough time moving between rooms to be taken out of the moment as she happily and patiently helped in dealing with the logistics of fitting twelve audience members into sometimes quite small spaces.
In the liberal world of twenty-first-century Australia, Daniel Nellor’s Ignis does not have the same superficial shock value as Reigen would have when first performed. The portrayal of sexual acts is tame by today’s standards, and there is no longer the same stigma to homosexuality or sex work. Nellor uses this freedom of expression to offer something more confronting - tales of sexual politics that challenge the notion that we all treat sex the same way.
The Anthropocene Play Company’s premiere production of Ignis should be lauded for being one of the most original, compelling, and thought-provoking productions at Melbourne Fringe this year. Many nights are already sold out, so I would recommend buying tickets while you still can.
Image Credit: Greg Elms