Review By James Ong
It’s a bit of an understatement to say that many of us are still reeling (and healing) from the sudden impact of COVID that immediately enveloped our lives in 2020. We were forced to learn a lot about ourselves and our loved ones when burrowed in for the worst of the first wave, and it’s this period of maddening isolation and self-discovery that acts as the setting for the thrilling and tense new KXT production, Videotape. We follow Daniel and Juliette, a young, rich, ‘golden’ couple as they hunker down in their haut apartment for the early stages of lockdown. Things are going about as well as you’d expect for the privileged two until mysterious, unlabelled VHS tapes start appearing at their door, containing footage of them in their most private moments.
This eerie concept actually takes direct inspiration from several beloved thriller films (Ringu, Hidden & Lost Highway) and blends them with a splash of COVID-induced anxiety. Though the plot may not be entirely original, writer & director Saro Lusty-Cavallari has crafted an emotionally and politically relevant work that has evolved the symbolism and meaning of the original works to become something new entirely. Lucinda Howes and Jake Fryer-Hornsby are deeply relatable as our lead duo, each layering humour and terror for an unsettlingly natural performance. As Juliette, Howes drives the lion’s share of empathy as a woman who must find reserves of strength despite waves of abuse from every direction, including from her trusted partner. Fryer-Hornsby has the tall order of truthfully representing the capacity for harm that resides in an everyman. Daniel is hit particularly hard by the lockdown and the bombardment of tapes and over the course of the play we see him regress and simplify. Before our eyes we are witnessing the breakdown of man into his component parts: an elitist, a child, a manipulator and, ultimately, an abuser. Laura Djanegara also appears sporadically throughout the show, powerfully shrouded in mystery and menace. Having portrayed unsettling characters in several productions, Djanegara has made a fine art out of twisting an audience.
Set and Costume designer Grace Deacon also does a fantastic job here, very efficiently communicating the world of privilege that Daniel and Juliette live in. Deacon washes the stage in pale and faded tones of grey, green, blue and pink to give the production not only a chic, upper class sheen, but to emulate the washed out contrast of the boxy TVs of yesteryear. With Lusty-Cavalleri claiming inspiration from and making reference to so many films, I wondered why he chose theatre as the medium for this work. Surely the screen would function better functionally and narratively. Well, the answer only hit me half way through the show. KXT is known for their traverse staging layout, which has definitely be used better in some productions than others. Here, the somewhat uncommon layout is used for quite striking effect. Everything we see on stage, every outburst or intimate moment, has the ominous backdrop of twenty-odd masked audience members peering down. Rows and rows of disembodied eyes silently judge the inner workings and faults of our main characters, which have come to the surface over the several months in quarantine.
And that’s the crux of the horror in Videotape. First, the very relatable fear of finding out who you truly are once you’ve been stripped of social norms and expectations and are simply existing in a vacuum – and secondly, the terror of others seeing this. That’s why I think the choice of VHS tapes here is so poignant. Yes it is a direct reference to the several films that inspired the concept, but it’s also a tangible, concrete record of who somebody is in their basest form. No curated, digital identity, but rather a piece of evidence that forces Daniel to confront and take accountability for his (until now unrecognised) toxicities. That is not to say that they didn’t exist prior to this. In fact one wonders just how easily we overlook (and often intentionally ignore) the red flags of abuse and manipulation that we see in our everyday lives. Holding abusers accountable has progressed leaps and bounds in the world of celebrities, but when things are in our personal circles that fervent support often is nowhere to be seen.
The team behind Videotape has crafted a timely and ambitious production that is at once surreal, deeply relatable and unsettling. Despite being one of the first live productions to directly deal with the brutality that was 2020, it’s difficult to see anything else reach such terrifying and authentic heights.
Image Credit: Zaina Ahmed