Review by Thomas Gregory
If I told you there was a two-hander being performed in the basement of a bar, that it was set around a police interview and that you could expect a few laughs, you would leave The Gist feeling satisfied with the honesty of the statement. In many ways, The Gist outperforms the expectations you would create from such a description. Despite this fulfilment of a promise, the production may leave you empty. It’s like being told you could have a nice cold beer but leaving with the realisation it was non-alcoholic. Some will have enjoyed it anyway; others will feel let down.
The basement of Bard’s Apothecary is a place you think of when you hear the words “underground theatre”. Bare brick walls, a slightly rough concrete floor, and only a few cans lighting the “stage”. The “stage” in question is the centre of the room, as the show is performed in the round.
Claire Nicholls and Kellie Tori are solid actors who easily hold our attention. Despite the whiplash pace that leaves you trying to comprehend the story from five lines ago, the words are never lost, even when the actor has their back to you. While sometimes it feels like the rehearsals concentrated too much on developing pace over performance, there are moments where the relationship between the two characters is honest and compelling. A broken shoe, a packet of chips, and a perfectly timed pause all do far more for this play than anything else. Nicholls and Tori also know where the comedy lies in this play, and the laughs the audience could have from this script were had by all.
The sound design of this production is surprising. At first, it is barely noticed, but then there is this intriguing parallel between the rise and fall of the interview and the collection of city and station sounds. There’s a hint that the sound of sirens may have a meaning, though that meaning is unclear.
In the end, for those wanting a fast-paced crime story presented by two strong actors, The Gist may be an acceptable beginning to a night out in Melbourne.
For those looking for something more from their theatre, this play isn’t for you. In fact, it is clear that Cameron Sievers, the writer and director of The Gist, isn’t interested in attracting such audiences. The marketing material and program repeat what might be called a manifesto:
The Gist is not an authored opinion on an issue, it is not a politically opportunistic piece of writing, a biopic of celebrity or a representation of tortured historical figures, and bears no relationship to the zeitgeist of identity politics. It has little contemporary relevance, and offers nothing more than the embodiment of original script-writing. It is a snapshot of real human beings on the edge, who are held in a compelling dramatic situation that is delivered with exhilarating tempo and exquisite idiomatic language.
This is a problematic viewpoint. Like it or not, all art is political, and a reflection of the age we live in. Sievers has, at least, walked the walk, offering a play that actively attempts to avoid any comment on women in criminal organisations, the internal motivations behind murder, or corrupt practices connected to prosecuting crimes. We are left with murders we don’t care about, zero stakes, and more energy to realise the jokes may be good, but they are sparse.
I think about the comedies of theatre. Much Ado About Nothing examines sex and reputation, After Magritte examines the bias of our lived experiences, and every bedroom farce on stage is but an exploration of the sexual politics it exaggerates. The very concept of humour relies on understanding our expectations. Politics is about decision-making. It is when characters make decisions you do not expect, or experience unexpected consequences from those decisions, that we find comedy.
In many ways, Sievers’ attempt to avoid a comment is itself a comment, but one that is concerning. It begs the question, “Why doesn’t Sievers want to offer an open opinion?” If there is no comment to be made, why is this play “a two-hander for women” and not “a two-hander”? If there is no comment to be made, why is part of the play the discussion of which dogs are worth killing?
There are things said in this play, even if Seiver didn’t intend to say them. Not one of these things is entirely problematic, but Siever would rather avoid shining a light on these messages than offer up characters that say more than words.
The tagline for this play is “You arrive in the middle, you don’t hear the end, you can’t look away.” While the first and last points are both true and enough to go and see this performance, that third point isn’t true. The play ends, or at least I have no interest in hearing any more.