Review By James Ong
I have to admit that political history has never been a strong passion of mine, and I often avoid topics that could be covered in a year 9 civics class. It’s interesting then that Life Is Impossible, a show heavily influenced by political history was able to relay some challenging topics and subject matter in an engaging and emotional manner. Brought to us by subtlenuance theatre company and playing at the Old 505, Life Is Impossible weighs in on some lofty existential questions and leaves us wondering about our own place in world history. The show centres on French philosopher Simone, who is living in New York as the Second World War dawns and she desperately yearns for a safe passage back to Europe. In her lament for the state of the world, she is challenged by a British consulate member, an American soldier and her wide-eyed Australian roommate, who all share and combat their political views. Written and directed by co-founder of the subtlenuance theatre company, Paul Gilchrist, Life is Impossible is an intelligent and knowing examination of this the various views that were flowing at a decidedly tense and tumultuous point in history. Chloe Schwank, performs the lead role with a determined sense of stoicism and detachment that rings true for an individual so disenfranchised with what is ostensibly her prison, and her true emotions can be quite difficult to decipher. This understated lead contrasts quite starkly to the emphatic and colourful performances that surround her. Elle Harris is bubbly and empathetic as the Australian Elaine and Matthew Abotomey effectively manipulates emotion and an impassioned young US nationalist. Though in arguably the smallest role of the production, Cormac Costello is an absolute joy to behold as the British consulate worker who stands as the main barrier to Simone returning home. Costello is brimming with charm, with condescending jibes rolling off the tongue like molasses.
It would seem that each of the characters are designed to represent the ideological and political leanings of their respective nations, and is clearly impacted by our retroactive lens.The Brit waxes lyrically and ruminates on his country’s long history of colonialism, the American bubbles with a hateful bloodlust and the French philosopher revels in condescension and cold avoidance of conflict. Each are clearly defined and familiar renditions of their respective cultural zeitgeists. Where, then, does Australia stand? How are we viewed amongst such notorious global powers? For the length of the show, Elaine is wowed by the glitz and glam of Broadway and falls in love with the New York harbour, but she remains distinctively out of place with her Big Apple surroundings. In fact, she also seems oddly stuck out of time. Harris performs with a contemporary Aussie intonation and exudes very optimistic naivety, indicating that Australia is uniquely inexperienced, and an unrespected, nation. In fact, the writer’s note critiques Australia for its failings as an international citizen up until WW2, and it’s hard not to continue that line to present day – our voice and power in the global forum is acknowledged, but ultimately secondary to the mega-powers that be. Gilchrist places some significant emphasis behind this dynamic in the show and the question of our national legacy moving forward lingers on the mind.
The design elements are functional and purposefully understated, bathing the stage in paper and manuscript and the costumes with browns, greys and blacks. You could very much feel the grain of the pages used to line the walls and props. Sepia-tones and paper textures are recognizable indicators of age, and while they haven’t reinvented the wheel, the effect was delivered slickly. Life Is Impossible is a thought provoking and well-staged examination of conflicting ideologies, and though I left the Old 505 not especially wiser about the politics of that war-torn time, I am filled with questions as to our current world. Will the battles we face now, be seen so simplistically looking back? Will Australia eventually step into a more powerful role on the world stage? And will there be such a strange nostalgia for our era, as there is for our grandparents’ age? We certainly have enough material to work from.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.