By Carly Fisher
Lucy Kirkwood once again delivers a play that leaves her audience with plenty to think about. Mosquitoes, the third of her plays included in the Sydney Theatre Company Season in as many years, sees a race of sorts take place – which will crumble first, the physical world around us or the emotional world within us.
Mosquitoes is not a play for a theatre-goer faint-of-heart. Running at over 2 and a half hours, the show is packed with rigorous detail and heightened emotional stakes throughout – everything that her characters seem to have, they must fight for, and we, as an audience, join them for this ride.
Unquestionably, of the three Kirkwood plays offered by STC, Chimerica and The Children being its predecessors, Mosquitoes is the most character central piece and though the inclusion of science and history for which Kirkwood is known is important to the story, it is for the first time, simply context. The characters, particularly sisters Jenny (Mandy McElhinney) and Alice (Jacqueline McKenzie) drive this story and as they do they take us down roads that are so real and honest to the experience of any siblings or individuals with aging parents that, of the three Kirkwood plays, these are perhaps the most relatable characters yet. McKenzie and McElhinney are perfectly cast in these roles and, in a show where the density of the text could easily lose the attention of many audiences, these two masterfully guide us through the emotional peaks and turns with clarity and with a rawness to their performances that is simply gripping.
Alice works in Geneva, Switzerland at CERN as part of a team of physicists on the brink of a big discovery that has been 11 years of hard work in the making. Hailing from parents who were equally brilliant in the sciences, she has evidently been raised with expectations of success from both herself and others at whatever personal cost this comes at. As such, when her son Luke (Charles Wu) continues to proclaim his bitter unhappiness at the school he is at, Alice is unable to see past the opportunities for the best education for her obviously gifted son and ignores his pleas to move. Alice tries hard to communicate with her son, much like she tries hard to communicate with her ex-husband before him, and now with her sister, her mother and even her boyfriend, all with failed ability. Alice may not be overtly self-centered but her success has obviously come at a cost and now her inability to understand or to communicate with those around her is threatening her ultimate demise.
Unquestionably less intelligent, less successful, less important, less everything than her sister, Jenny can’t seem to do anything right, but not for lack of trying. When the play opens with her pregnant, we are given a glimpse into both her trust in her sister, but also her complete neurosis, a paranoia that has her believing every conspiracy she reads online it seems. As such, she doesn’t even have an ultrasound whilst pregnant in her extreme attempts to protect her beloved child from any potential dangers…and this is only the beginning. Years later when Jenny turns up in Geneva to visit Alice without the child, we find out that this paranoia has extended to a choice not to vaccinate her daughter, resulting in what was clearly a preventable death. Grieving and struggling not to simply fall apart at the seams, Jenny’s loyalty is put to the ultimate test and as her universe continues to crumble, a choice between self or family must be made.
Luke seems to be your typical teenager experiencing girl troubles and not fitting in at school but when things escalate to, what Luke sees as a point of no return, his world too seems to be shattered. Plagued with the knowledge that his father fled too because of his own mental illness issues, Luke seems scared at the prospects of the future, whilst being seemingly overwhelmed by the situations of his present.
Karen (Annie Byron) desperately tries to remain relevant – to her daughters, Alice and Jenny, and to the sciences where she knows she has been overlooked in the past but now craves the recognition she deserved. Battled a failing body and the horrors of ageing and limited agency, Karen fights to remain in control, if not of everything than at least of her own decisions.
In true Kirkwood fashion, no one is safe from true tragedy and as the play continues everyone experiences unprecedented loss that not only threatens to shatter them but also to tear their small family unit apart. These stakes are so brilliantly executed by the incredibly talented Jess Arthur who, as director, has not shied away from any of the discomforts laced into Kirkwood’s work. Instead, Arthur has clearly worked with her cast to extract every fiber of meaning from each of these heartbreaking or earth altering events and the production is superior for it.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s set perhaps was the let-down on this production. Whilst the idea of vastness and the emptiness of the characters world was clearly expressed through the dark, bare stage, using the full depth of the stage made us as an audience increasingly aware of our distance and inaccessibility to the characters and therefore the text. Ultimately, with nothing but bareness, I was left questioning whether the Drama Theatre was the best possible home for this production or whether this story would have potentially been more fulfilling in a more intimate environment, a question I feel could have been answered by a more ambitious set design.
Realistically, the text is too long and no matter how expertly it is played, and it truly is by all the actors on stage, it is a bit too dense to remain gripping throughout. That said, the academic rigor lined with humour throughout that defines Kirkwood’s style will certainly hold great appeal for particular audiences – this reviewer included.
Photo Credit: Daniel Boud
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.