Narrow Graves is the third production I have seen by Second Chance Theatre this year after the atmospheric Bye. Gone and the apocalyptic relationship drama Coincidences at the End of Time. All three were written by Scott McArdle who is nothing less than prolific with his debut musical Extra Ordinary People due to hit Murdoch University’s Nexus Theatre in November. This one is at the Drama Workshop also on the Murdoch campus.
McArdle is a young writer with great potential and he’s certainly not afraid to explore provocative and dark subject matter such as in this play. That he does so with wit, insight, and at times brutal realism is testament to his writing ability – a skill that might take him to NIDA and beyond, all things being equal later in the year. Not content with being the author, he also does the lighting design and acts, notably in this one, naked for a large portion.
He is joined on stage by his Coincidences co-star Emily David (as Charlotte) who plays a newly arrived ‘guest’ at a facility whose previous owner was one A. Hitler. We quickly learn things haven’t changed much as this unnamed place indulges in the kind of experiments that would not be out of place in those evil times. David has an eminently watchable quality that is powered by a stillness and calmness in her acting. This works to the play’s advantage as her character is perhaps the only sane person in a bunch that includes fellow ‘guests’ Juliet, a partially lobotomised, childlike presence; and Ethan, stoically played by McArdle who stands naked in a bucket of water as a form of ritual humiliation.
Charlotte’s guide, Benjamin (a doctor of some sort), is played by Rhys Hyatt who obliquely explains the rules of this strange world. Hyatt portrays the character with a mix of condescension and smarminess to amusing effect though we soon discover a much darker side as he takes advantage of Juliet (Jade Galambosi) for his own sexual gratification. Galambosi is sweet and tragic as the damaged soul stuck in this horrid place.
The final character is The Warden, a strong performance by Laughton Mckenzie. This is the charismatic yet unhinged ‘visionary’ who demands complete obedience yet is unaware of the chaos his actions reap. Which is ironic as chaos is the very thing he wishes to eliminate and the entire purpose of this facility. A chaos brought about by emotion, love and sex, all sins to be removed from the unwilling guests. Exercise time is a euphemism for joyless sex as Charlotte and Ethan are forced to couple every day under the watchful eyes of Benjamin and the Warden. The unwanted results of such ‘experiments’ can be terminated with a syringe.
It’s all bleak and unrelenting but this appears to be McArdle’s intention. A world without love, emotion and sex leaves people a gibbering mess in the corner of a very dark place indeed. It is a cautionary tale regarding the rise of conservatism in places such as Australia where governments seek to control aspects of our lives that really are none of their business. Ultimately though I wasn’t sure what the takeaway from this is as the cycle repeats itself as even Charlotte crumbles in the face of such heartless brutality. This was after an act of perverse kindness that did surprise me and was shocking in its ruthlessly efficient staging.
There is black humour throughout to leaven this nightmarish vision and it was interesting watching the power structure at play. This hierarchy is most noticeable with Benjamin who lords over the guests but is obsequious and subservient to the Warden. The performances are all strong but pitched very differently with Hyatt and Mckenzie given licence to have the showier roles while David, Galambosi and McArdle drive the emotional punch of the play. The set is simple yet effective with good use of lighting guiding us through scene changes.
This is SCT’s most overtly political piece and it’s certainly not for the fainthearted. The creative team and actors are to be applauded for producing a play that will make you think and wasn’t without its own share of adversity in bringing to the stage. There are three more shows; tonight at 7.00pm sharp (there is a lockout) with a matinee and evening show on Saturday.