of international luminaries at the Melbourne Writers' Festival should not
blind us to the abundance of talent possessed of local writers and it is
doubtful if any bigger contribution has been made to the Festival than that
of the comparatively unknown Peter Leiss, Neil Caldwell and Brettcardie
Ingram. These three, the first two in concert, all of whom are Melbournians,
have authored an extraordinary double bill currently running at the Wax
Theatre in Richmond. They have, as it were, set the seal on the city's literary
Leiss and Caldwell have written a Pinteresque piece titled "Antarctica
Starts Here", which consists of a dialogue between Zack and Alex, fraught
in their relationship, unable to manage the depth of the love that holds
them together. Ostensibly, it is a lesbian relationship Alex has with a
friend that creates the friction, but Leiss and Caldwell are clever enough
to realize that the real tension lies much deeper, in unresolved needs within
the principals. Zack condescends to love, never quite realizing that love
has more to do with giving than with receiving, yet incapable, for all that,
of escaping the consequences of this truth. Alex anguishes that she seems
to have to earn love yet vacillates between a willingness and an incapacity
to achieve this. Her pain is palpable: her anger is almost too controlled.
In the tight writing of this script, dialogue becomes almost a form of declamation,
not of its participants but of their failure to sustain a mutually supportive
relationship. Not a word is wasted in a desperate attempt to say what is
perhaps ultimately unsayable.
Monica Tessalaar as Alex and Justin Foster as Zack, utilize every square
inch of a miniscule stage, creating territories with varying significance.
Two chairs set side by side are the domain of their intimacies, their tender
approaches to each other. The cocktail table is virtually never shared and
serves as the citadel in which they seek their individual certitudes. The
frame of a doorway provides Alex with a portal of promise but as she takes
up her pose in it, Zack remains up-stage, reflecting on his "individual
truth" and thus unavailable to her. The off-stage door, which Alex opens
as the play reaches its climax, is never slammed and the audience clutches
at the sliver of hope this offers.
Justin Foster's Zack is a suave, intellectual game-player whose emotions
are never allowed to manifest themselves but his last two words reveal that
they are an abundant, if controlled, force in his life.
Ingram's Brawl is a roller coaster of sex and violence, centered around
the promiscuous alcoholic, Lila, played with extraordinary conviction and
authority by Elise Wilkinson. The femme fatale, she orchestrates the plot
and directs the passion, her sexual behavior leading to murder. But if Lila
directs the action, Bud, played by Justin Foster, is its fuse and he burns
with a threatening hiss from the play's opening to its close. Foster juggles
confusion, anger, pain and despair in a heart-wrenching performance that
contrasts finely with his presentation of Zack.
The supporting cast of Tony Rive, Robert Corner (who also directs) and Jeoff
Keogh, provide disciplined performances, which carry forward the full force
of the tragedy. Nor should the importance of the haunting impact of the
carefully selected music go unnoticed.
Ingram has tuned a fine ear to the language of the neighborhood bar and
the disquieted bedroom and in his text he reproduces it with a high degree
of fidelity. Rough, even uncouth it may be but it is also full of piquancy
as it manfully shoulders the responsibility of communicating the truth.
On the surface, both plays are about sex but, as Bud passionately seeks
to enlighten Lila, "sex is not everything" and in these two plays it finally
takes a secondary place. The real theme of this powerful double is the self-deception
and lying that eats away at the essence of human interaction and leaves
the individual in a terror of isolation.
Neither these two plays nor their writers were supported financially by
the Writers' Festival but their audiences will judge this to be an oversight
and will hope that in future years finance will be made available to enable
the drafting and performance of comparable works. It is no special pleading
to argue that for several years, Wax Theatre has demonstrated that it is
the locus of considerable talent - its recent Pinter double was much more
polished than the recent similar offering by the Melbourne Theatre Company
at the Fairfax - that warrants the attention of the Premier's Ministry of
the Arts and other funding bodies.