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Review: Slaughterhouse Five at Theatre . Works

By Lucinda Naughton

Theatre Works and Monash University Student Theatre (MUST) present Fleur Kilpatrick’s theatrical adaption of Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, one of the most important novels of the 20th century. The play is performed entirely by MUST, as they are no older than those sent to war; MUST deliver impressively mature performances for students.

Slaughterhouse Five follows Vonnegut’s own experiences of the bombing of Dresden during World War II, through the protagonist Billy Pilgrim. The play, like the novel, jumps around in time and reality. It is a darkly funny concoction of sci-fi, sex, and aliens, exploring through Billy the after effects of witnessing a horrendous massacre.

The jumps in time create a messy and, at times, confusing storyline. There is much use of narration, which effectively paints the scenes each time they jump and “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” The narration is often very clever and fun, comically breaking the fourth wall, and jumping from one cast member to the next. However, the play requires much attention to follow the plot and sometimes can feel a little senseless. Having said that, I think this is part of the aim of the piece – it reflects the confusion and foolishness of war.

Fleur Kilpatrick’s wonderful direction and Jason Lehane’s beautiful design of Slaughterhouse Five are impressive. The performance exhibits clever physicality and staging throughout. The opening scene, for instance, depicts Billy narrating while the cast separate into three groups and create physical imagery, like dancers and soldiers, which imaginatively and effectively places the piece in the World War II context.

Apart from Billy, each of the cast members take on many different characters, as well as narrators. This works well and demonstrates the range of the students’ talent. There are beautiful songs and dancing which lighten the mood and certainly capture the audience’s attention. There were a few line slip-ups and while there were moments of high-energy, the energy could perhaps have been better sustained throughout the play. However overall, the student cast was certainly notable.

The staging is simple; most of the scenes only contain blackboards. These are skilfully wheeled around for different uses, occasionally flipping one into a table. The cast draw backdrops on them discreetly during scenes for the next scene, such as a forest, a radio, or hospital beds; I found their use ingenious and very creative. Every time the characters talk about someone dying in the story, they say, “So it goes” and tally it up on a blackboard that stays downstage – a really effective tool to humorously show how deaths become just a number during war. In the last scene they take this technique to the next level.

John Collopy’s beautiful lighting design and Justin Gardam’s incredible sound design bring the production to life. The lighting and sound add so much to the ominous mood of the performance. The alien spaceship created just from the sound and lighting is particularly impressive, and an awesome conclusion to the first act.

Slaughterhouse Five is beautiful, jarring, intense, and funny. MUST demonstrates great talent and potential. The production offers just the right amount of intense moments before the comedy cuts through. A great performance.

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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