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Review: Stay Woke at The Malthouse

Review by Lucinda Naughton

Stay Woke by Aran Thangaratnam is such a powerful and hilarious play. The quick wit, big personalities, and weekend getaway all make for a highly entertaining and gripping time. Thangaratnam hits all the nerves and sparks all the tensions, and the entire production is impressive and beautifully unified.

Four people, two couples and two brothers, are stuck together in a snow cabin for a three-day weekend ski trip at Mount Buller. What could go wrong? The two Sri Lankan brothers aren’t close and spending time together with their partners is a new experience for them. The experience highlights the personal differences between them drastically, the elder brother chastising the younger for not standing up against white ignorance more – particularly when it’s coming from Kate, the younger brother’s girlfriend. The play explores the tensions between an uneducated white girl (Kate) and the ‘woke’ couple who are sick of having to justify themselves in a predominantly white and heteronormative society.

I love how character-driven the play is – the four characters are strong and distinct. Bridget Balodis’s direction wonderfully brings to the fore the individual nature of each character and the vast gaps at times between them. The play opens on the awkward first moments of the characters greeting each other at the cabin, while simultaneously meeting their sibling’s partners for the first time. Thangaratnam’s attention to detail here, sets the play up well – like the awkward surprise when you meet your partner’s brother for the first time and they tell you their name and it does not match the nickname your partner told you. That second-take, that plunging feeling in your stomach when you miss a step, is the atmosphere created in the opening of the play. It becomes clear very quickly that Kate is the awkward one out of sync with the other three. Well, awkward is putting it kindly. Sometimes she’s hilariously awkward, other times she’s hilariously squeamishly wrong. Much of the humour in the play is about how shockingly real Kate’s misconceptions are; it becomes sadly obvious how insensitive she can be, like when she suggests ‘boys vs. girls’ for a game of charades, which is maddingly exclusive to non-binary.

The dynamics and relationships between the four develop and reveal themselves quickly over the first shared dinner together. I adored the performances of the four cast members. The foursome is strong, vibrant and a thrill to watch. Brooke Lee brings great energy to the stage, showcasing the character’s strength and energy balanced with calm sensitivities so well. Dushan Philips brings great depth and presence, revealing many sides throughout the play. Kaivu Suvarna is wonderful to watch and Rose Adams is unstoppable, making me laugh and inwardly recoil all the way through.

Thangaratnam’s setting of the play – the four of them stuck together for the weekend, with nowhere to escape and no one else to talk to – helps build the intense atmosphere so perfectly. After Kate had been confronted by the reality of her own nature, there is nowhere for her to go. It’s gripping to watch the characters continue to ‘holiday’ despite their clear political, cultural, and societal clashes. You can’t escape reality and the effect your actions and words have on others – you’re held accountable here. I also appreciated the link to lockdowns – I know we’re sick of talking about COVID-19, but that feeling of no escape is one that we are all familiar with.

I loved Daniella A Esposito’s composition and sound design for the production. It helps create the world the four characters find themselves in. The party scene is hilariously and creatively represented; using Esposito’s sound design and Rachel Lee’s lighting design, the audience gets glimpses of key moments throughout the night. Lee’s lighting design is superb. I must mention the one and only time the fourth wall is broken, involving a spotlight, is utterly satisfying and hilarious. I think that moment grasps what the play is about – the different standards and privileges that white people (like me) have. It was an awesome and effective breaking of the fourth wall.

Matilda Woodroofe’s set and costume design were awesome. The set design created the feeling of the snow cabin so beautifully and the copious amount of wood – used for the floor, furniture and even the ceiling – created such a cosy feeling, which I felt complemented the not-so-cosy relationships of the characters perfectly. Woodroofe’s costume design showcased each character so well and thoughtfully, and the costumes are so aesthetically pleasing, adding another rich layer to the production.

Adams and Philips’ moment towards the end of the play is one that I had been waiting for. I found it beautiful yet also sad and I enjoyed watching the characters stay true to themselves even amidst such an uncomfortable circumstance. The moment also brings a sense of closure before the trip (and play) comes to an end.

Stay Woke is fearless and raw and a play I highly recommend.

Images Supplied


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