Review by Thomas Gregory
In a play that could be described as “Saw” crossed with “The Birthday Party”, this two-hander is the first offering by new playwright Alexander Dymalovski. At a brisk sub-hour length that feels even shorter, it is the type of theatre that gives you plenty to talk about at dinner afterward.
Two strangers wake up in a room with a gun. It’s such a beautifully simple premise that offers so much. One of the strangers, played by Lara Anderson, is a newly engaged person filled with hope for the future, while the other, Boaz Hulme, has lost the most important things to them already. Does that mean, Dymalovksi asks, that one of these strangers has a greater claim to life?
I won’t lie: when the play started, I had a small hope that questions like the above would not even be examined; I hoped that the early offerings of absurdism would flourish while “the trolley problem” be left unexplored. The gun immediately going off, and the immediate consequences of it doing so, was one of the highlights of my night. Dymalovski’s presentation of two different responses to the immediate fears was engaging, and it is in these scenes that Hulme and Anderson had the most chemistry as they responded to each other.
While the play moves further away from the absurd and more into the ordinary philosophy-tinged drama, that isn’t to say it drops in quality. It simply becomes more conventional. We learn the backstories of the characters, are presented with the dilemma they face, and the question of how much value we should put on the lives of others.
I couldn’t decide if Hulme’s lecture on the psychology of gun use was intentionally sophomoric; a little clarity on if the character’s voice was the writer’s in this instance may have helped. When the play moved away from monologues and into conversations, it was at its very strongest, and most believable.
While the premise of the story is so uncomplicated, many of us would not be able to write a conclusion that would have a real impact on the audience. Dymalovski themself points out that there are only a few obvious options: One dies, they both die, or somehow they both last whatever arbitrary time is required to leave. The ending of Mor(t)ality is deceptively simple, completely unexpected, and immensely satisfying. You will leave the theatre wondering what will come next for the characters, both as physical prisoners and as people who made difficult decisions.
That Boaz Hulme took on his role only two weeks before opening is impressive. His character is one that you could easily lose empathy for, and perhaps even want to fire the gun at, but Hulme presents them in a way that helps explain why no such decision is easy.
Lara Anderson’s previous experience with Pinter and Stoppard has clearly helped her in this current role, where she often finds the character moments between the lines.
Together, they are far less consistent. When bouncing off each other they have the chemistry you would expect from such strangers but when faced with the need to find a shared rhythm in the final scenes, they stumble. I think most professionals would when tackling such a script with so few rehearsals, though, and the effort must be praised.
The Butterfly Club is not a place for any sound or lighting of any complexity, and I’ve seen my fair share of poorly lit productions with terrible acoustics. For this reason, most productions aren’t willing to do anything more than light the stage as bright as possible and avoid all sound effects.
While Mor(t)ality would never be a play requiring too crazy a design, it is worth noting just how perfectly the use of lighting and sound effect was used for this venue. Dividing the small stage at key moments highlights the internal loneliness of the characters, while the simple “ticking clock” motif reminds us that these forty-five minutes on stage could be hours, or even days, for those suffering on it.
Mor(t)ality would be a stronger play under a different direction, of that I’m sure. While it is a common complaint in my reviews, I stand by my belief that too many Melbourne playwrights find their darling writings too precious to hand to someone else - and hurt their work by holding it tight to their chest. There is little subtlety in many of the directorial choices, and many times the power in the text is lost by poor timing, obvious blocking, or deciding to “go loud” when a more subdued path would be more effective. If the gun does not play a central role in the conversation, it appears to be forgotten. At times, the tension is lost.
While Dymalovski far from embarrasses themselves as a director, in more confident hands I believe the text would shine even stronger.
As a debut work, Mor(t)ality has all the rough edges, obvious choices, and hesitant voices that you might expect. There are surprising moments of cleverness in the text, and some passionate performances that will leave you talking about the night well after it has ended. The potential of everyone involved is readily apparent.
Mor(t)ality is a play you want to see so you can say “I knew them when they started.” Don’t be the one to miss out.