Review by Naomi Cardwell.
“Bro, that Scorpio was too real”.
As the audience filters down the Butterfly Club’s endless narrow staircases, a bit of after-show eavesdropping feels inevitable. Guilt-free. So, I won’t apologise for opening my review with an out-of-context, unattributed quote I seagulled from a random audience member on the way to find a post-show drink. In the twinkling fairy-lit bar, presided over by hundreds of eclectic op-shop finds, we sink into comfy chintz couches and velvet chairs and somehow very cheerily consider our mortality.
Silver String Productions’ The Waiting Room is a series of stark, funny and confronting pieces produced for the Butterfly Club’s November Monologue festival. Five women find themselves on an empty stage at the end of their lives, to discover that God’s patented relentless silence from Life continues into Eternity as well. Into the void they pour reasons, explanations, bullet points, and offer their confessions. “What do you want?” Elyse Batson’s character pleads, infuriated. “…If you don’t stop ignoring me, I’m going to really fall in love with you!”.
Interspersed with clever audio by Aiden Fyfield, which warps and distorts one of Australia’s most memorable feminist speeches, the play reflects that if there is an afterlife, women will have the inside edge on negotiating with an immovable, fickle, all-powerful omnipresence. We’ve had the most practice, after all.
As each lost, frightened Dante realises she’s been stood up by her Virgil, the women deploy familiar coping mechanisms we’ve always used to navigate power imbalances out on our own. Batson’s desperate people-pleasing is humble, sincere, and self-effacing as her panic rises. Delaram Ahmadi relates to God as a higher-order mean girl, firing off selfies, poses, and astrological charts to bring him on side. Caffeinated, neurotic Amelia Dunn is a study in anxious futility, arriving at the Pearly Gates with a prepared list of confessions she’s been nurturing all her life, indexed and alphabetised for God’s convenience.
The choice to embody God on stage is one I can’t make up my mind about. Rory Harman projects a massive, intimidating presence - a stalking, ninja-clad menace that coalesces out of the dark and draws a genuine gasp of terror from the audience at one memorable point. His commendable tableaus with the other performers visually liken our relationship with God to one with an abusive partner, a theme dramaturg Tuia Suter sensitively cultivates throughout the work. But his presence also compromises the infuriating, unyielding silence of God that makes these monologues so tantalising.
Fiona Crombie’s blunt and forthright arrival on the stage mark a turn in the play. When genuflection and a sprinkling of liturgy fail to make their mark, she offers all she has left to God: the truth, followed by a few strong home truths about the Good Shepherd himself. Her plain and unflustered disgust, delivered with measure and dignity, are the point where The Waiting Room’s rubber really hits the road. The final performance by Laura Knaggs is a tour de force that brings the house down - blistering, hilarious and frenetic, full of story, defiance and life.
The night I was there, this arrangement of monologues suffered from a slightly uneven gait - the first tranche was rushed and felt last-minute in comparison to the final, very polished pieces. The lighting, which director Ellen O’Connor places literally in God’s hands, is one of the most simple, clever and effective pieces of creative work I’ve seen in theatre this year.
The test for a great monologue is whether it stays with you, challenging you, worrying you, picking fights with you in days to come. The Waiting Room won’t let any of its’ audience go. Everyone I eavesdrop on after the show (not sorry) seems to have adopted a favourite monologuist as we speculate about what we ourselves would say to the Almighty when our turn comes. In all, The Waiting Room is a canny, warm and absorbing artistic project which meditates on power and powerlessness, offering flashes of genuine revelation. Consider me converted.