Review: Stay Woke at the Darlinghurst Theatre Company

By James Ong

I’ve seldom found a truly engaging mumblecore production; the genre seems to inherently invite disinterest. However, Stay Woke seems to have found the solution my short attention span, despite pulling out every trick on the mumble-floor. Highlighting disenfranchised 20-somethings, minimal settings and lacking any traditional sense of a narrative, Aran Thangaratnam’s bitingly authentic depiction of 2022 wokeness is a beautifully crafted experience in what can often be an unforgiving genre. Stay Woke centres on Niv and Sai, two decidedly distant brothers of Sri Lankan descent, as well as their respective partners Mae and Kate as they escape for a weekend to the mountains. The quartet seems to represent four points on a wokeness scale, ranging from unrealistic outrage machine to inactivity incarnate. Matilda Woodroofe’s mostly literal set and costume design of anxiety-ridden generational cuspies lent the show a palpable modernity, stressing that while we’re discussing broader timeless topics, we are based in very real, current conversations. However, some less literal walls would have been appreciated by those sitting on the outer ends of the audience, who often had to solely rely on their ears to take in the whip smart dialogue. A key conductor of the crackling tensions was lead aggressor Niv. Brought to infuriatingly relatable life by Dushan Philips, he is entirely forceful and objectionable, no matter how much I agree with his viewpoint. As is the case with with Bridget Balodis’ deft direction, Philips treads that difficult line of sympathetic preachiness and neatly displays how prominent neo-liberal ideas can (and often do) translate into ardent piousness. Brooke Lee was effortlessly cool as the stylish, world-wisened Mae, a perpetual outsider in the eyes of their prospective in-laws. Mae is by far the most affable of the bunch, displaying a kind-hearted self-confidence. If nothing else, they end the age old debate: can you be both a hard-lefty and pleasant to be around? Not only yes, but Lee has crafted a realistic ideal to strive towards. At first glance, I found this elder couple to be slightly cartoonish - but two seconds of reflection on my own man-bunned, politically-driven, plant-based and heavily hyphened life made me realise that the mark wasn’t far off the intended audience. The core dramas of the show revolve around Rose Adam’s Kate, the newest addition to the clan, who waivers frequently between forgivably innocent and unforgivably ignorant. Lacking in melanin, financial stress and perspective in life, Kate lives within multiple social bubbles that are routinely burst. However, the heft of my emotional investment came through her parter Kai, played by Kaivu Suvarna. The younger brother is easily the most middle of the road, understanding of both ends of the spectrum, yet coaxing the most disappointment through his inaction, which ends up rebuilding the aforementioned bubbles. There’s never a doubt that all four characters lie on the solidly on the same end of the political spectrum and have their hearts in the right place, and it’s entirely within the shades of grey that Stay Woke revels and thrives. Though there are some slightly perplexing sound design choices, Balodis and Thangaratnam’s remarkably nuanced comedy and avoidance of moral absolutes is a strikingly honest and empathetic reflection on our progressive ability to eat ourselves alive.

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