An elephant. One of the strongest animals on Earth. Tied to a peg in the ground. Yet it won’t move. Conditioned from a young age by handlers who tied it to logs. It strained and strained but could not move. Fully grown now it doesn’t try anymore, not even against the smallest of pegs. Even though it could easily free itself.
Aren’t some of us like that in many ways? Locked in a destructive perception of ourselves through guilt or fear or shame or simply through conditioning. Being told over and over. Not good enough. Not attractive enough. Not smart enough. Not enough. If only we tugged against the negative self talk, the doubts, the lack of self esteem we could free ourselves. But like the elephant sometimes we don’t. We listen to the silly voices in our head. The opinion of others.
And so Mary (Verity Softly) finds herself in a room littered with potatoes and used water canisters. With a rope tied around one ankle. The other end of the rope disappears through a hole in the wall. She’s greeted by the wisecracking Louise (Alicia Osyka) who’s been here a while but doesn’t seem too forthcoming about divulging the ‘rules’. Mary discovers another newcomer, Andy (Brenn Hislop), who is disoriented and in pain.
Slowly we learn there is someone watching. Who issues instructions. In a childish girl’s voice. Who shows each of them things. No, not things. People. People somewhere else who are suffering because of them. Each one’s reaction is different. They are trapped. They must face whatever it is that has led to them being tethered. In a room. With no escape. They must suffer the consequences of their actions, culpable in the fate of others.
It’s an intriguing premise by writer Ann-Marie Biagioni. Billed as a thriller I kept waiting for a twist and perhaps James Wan and Leigh Whannell are to blame for that. But no twist came; the owner of the childish voices wasn’t revealed; and the stakes weren’t ratcheted up as one might expect. This felt more a character study about the ways we trap ourselves rather than those who would seek to ensnare us for amusement or sinister intent. The play also ends on a thematic note instead of a plot driven climax so the thriller moniker feels a little misleading.
The psychological character study is aided by strong performances from Osyka and Softly who really are the two in direct conflict. Hislop’s Andy felt more a device so he had less to work with and I never quite understood his motivation for attempting an extreme act in response to seeing his ‘victim’. Despite a long monologue attempting to explain this. The labyrinth details didn’t convince.
Osyka is excellent at the casual delivery of a sharp one liner or throwaway snide remark. We wonder if her Louise is delusional or maybe even complicit in some way. Perhaps she is the most damaged of the lot. It’s a fine line to tread and it’s an intriguing performance.
Softly plays Mary with straight forward earnestness that butts up against the superficial glibness of Osyka’s Louise. They are at different ends of the spectrum – compassionate versus disinterested; desperate versus resigned. It’s the cut and thrust of their conversations that form the foundation of the play.
The set design, lighting and sound design provide an effective mood of disquiet. The tangle of ropes is particularly effective. Though more could have been made of their shortening length as ‘she’ becomes displeased with the actions or responses of her playthings.
Ultimately it felt like the characters were let off the hook but then maybe that’s the point. It’s the individual who decides to stop listening to those childish voices of self-doubt and fear and pull away from whatever restraint holds them in place... or not.
Written by Ann-Marie Biagioni, Directed by Scott Corbett and featuring Brenn Hislop, Alicia Osyka, and Verity Softly, this The Cutting Room Floor production is on at The Blue Room until 13 February.