By Lali Gill
Samo is Dead opened at the Seymour on Tuesday night to an audience of supportive friends and curious theatre-goers. It’s always exciting and admirable for young creatives to have the opportunity to tell new stories, and there was excitement surrounding the production. Unfortunately this production, put on by young people and about young people, fails at communicating anything of importance about the trials and tribulations that young people today face. The story unfolds in the Australian town of Bathurst, and follows Luke, an aspiring artist, Beth, a waitress, and Holly… the waitress’s friend? ‘Samo’ (Theo Murray) is less a character than an illusion, the personification of art made by African-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, who Luke is both inspired by and obsessed with—though the meaning and political implications of Basquiat’s art, such as challenges to structural classism and racism, are not clearly interrogated until a vague ending revelation. The play is less concerned with plotting than with setting, taking place entirely within a cafe (that’s apparently always empty) and Luke’s bedroom, while the trio chat, insult each other, and indulge in drug use.
Clearly inspired by the naturalistic style of playwrights such as Annie Baker, the dialogue tries hard to be ‘real’ and relatable, but with the content feeling inaccessible or just simply confusing at times, this realism is undermined and instead feels forced. Characters end up repeating the same words and phrases, with little intent or sense. Some of the problems with this attempted naturalism arise from the play trying to force ‘big ideas’ about art and the meaning of life into mundane chatter, a contrast that feels somewhat unnatural and as such, the dialogue is simply unconvincing and the messages lost or unclear.
The character of Beth (Sophie Peppernell) was seemingly intended to be the protagonist, in both the story’s focus and the audience’s sympathies. Irrespective of Peppernell’s abilities on stage, it is ultimately Luke (Chris Rowe) that commandeers this role and often this is to the play’s detriment as our focus is split between two characters, neither proving a suitable protagonist. Whilst other characters in the show can’t see Samo - the mysterious figure in Luke’s head - we, the audience, can. This gives us an insight into Luke’s perspective that we don’t get with the female characters, making him feel like the hero of our story; a problem given his recognisable childishness and pretentiousness, making him unlikeable as our lead. As the play progresses, Luke becomes more disrespectful towards Beth, more unstable, and more difficult to understand. I. didn’t care for him or will him to succeed and found myself questioning his intentions more than supporting him, particularly when it came to my fears for what he may do to the women in the story.
This would be acceptable if these dynamics were properly explored or discussed, especially given that Luke is certainly not meant to be particularly likable, but both the characters and the play remain overly sympathetic towards him throughout. Overall, these characters had little to no stakes, arcs, or layers, making it a tough job for the actors to really win us as an audience over.
The set of the show had some nice elements to it, including the colours and details put into the Bathurst cafe, like the menu and some little cacti. However, the year in which the play was set was left strangely unclear. Whilst characters used cassette players and wired phones with curly cords, the costuming (by Jake Starr) was very modern. Characters wear fashionable sneakers and branded jumpers that students often sport around campuses, carry modern backpacks, and use modern makeup. Alongside this somewhat inconsistent (but very trendy!) aesthetic, Beth poured pre-brewed coffee and asked for tips, both things that aren’t and have never been part of Australian culture. Though these small details individually mightn’t seem significant, together they make it near-impossible to become immersed in the story. There are also frequent blackouts, some of which are brief and meant to signal a break in scenes (despite the characters’ positions and actions not changing), and some which drag the play to a halt due to their length, as the stage crew moves a number of dining tables and chairs slightly backwards, perhaps due to the very front row’s sightlines.
All of these elements are able to be improved if the show pursues future runs, and with a look over some of these logistical and continuity issues, audiences could expect a much smoother performance which would help the actors in their performances and help with the naturalistic style of the show.
Until this point, almost everything could be improved on and that is the role of a first performance of a new work – to find the areas which require perfecting to excel. However,
sadly, the most disappointing part of Samo is Dead was its one-dimensional female characters. Akala T Newman gives a good performance as Holly, considering what depth she has to work with—not much. It was unfortunate to see the play present women as either sexless and angry, or overly sexualised and silly, playing into commonly seen misogynistic tropes. It seemed that Holly was meant to play as a comedic stereotype of shallowness, but she honestly still came across as the most sympathetic and proactive character, despite being secondary, because of how static the others were. I was looking forward to seeing interesting, layered young women written by a young woman, but that isn’t what I received and for me, this was the play’s ultimate undoing.
As always, we should encourage and appreciate new writers to create, experiment and collaborate, and for putting on a larger-scale original work the creative team and cast should be congratulated. This just didn’t work for me.
All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.