Review: Extinction – Red Stitch Theatre
Red Stitch continues their environmentalist theme for the season in Extinction, written by the powerhouse creative talent Hannie Rayson and directed by the critically acclaimed Nadia Tass.
On the International Union for Conservation of Nature and natural resources red list (IUCN), Australia is classed as having 35 of its discovered species extinct. The fraught task of resolving this issue, beneath the ever present spectre of national and international environmental strife, is the primary concern of the performance.
Harry Jewel, played by Colin Lane, is a mining magnate turned mild environmental altruist after hitting and killing an endangered quoll in his four wheel drive. He is the political foil for Andy Dixon-Brown, played by Brett Cousins, a practical yet idealistic man and practising veterinarian who holds the natural world sacrosanct, and is suffering from a terminal illness akin to Parkinson’s.
Dix, played by Natasha Herbert, is the director of the CAPE institute and Andy’s 50 year old sister. She leans pragmatically towards Harry Jewell’s camp, and is passionate about establishing an objective, statistics based approach to the rescue of endangered species – essentially, that if the species numbers drop below 5000, then they’re not worth the expense, financially and to the detriment of other species who might still have a chance. Piper, played by Ngaire Dawn Fair, a conservation biologist, is her opposite number, the sexy young idealist, who firmly and energetically believes everything can be saved, from her cancerous 12 year old dog Beast to the terminally endangered tiger quoll.
Whether or not the fact of Australian eco-apocalypse is high on your list of immediate concerns, this play is going to put your value system under pressure. In the hour and a half, you will be forced to take a stance somewhere on the slippery, uneven ground of environmental politics, and the moral nuances of the current Australian environmental crisis. The cast tackle many obstacles in their struggle to come to terms with how best to address the situation of a changing country, a changing world, which seems to be gathering momentum on its plummet toward an environmental apocalypse.
Yet this is play is flawed. I do not believe that it conquered the classic perils of the polemic political play, awkwardly failing to be compelling, engaging and subtle as it is so keenly self aware of its own highly political agenda. It felt as if the dramatic relationships between the four characters had been loosely cobbled together to forge a thin veil for what is really just a tedious outlining of all the different arguments currently dominating the environmental debate.
The characters attempted to convince us of their humanity – mainly via loose plotlines focusing on the shifting sexual (read ‘human’) dynamics between the group – before switching comfortably back into parroting some lukewarm political sentiments that, delivered with no lack of passion or pathos from the actors. For me, this marriage of the general arguments surrounding the issue of environmentalism and the earnest, chest-beating noble-oratory aphoristic style of the dialogue did not make compelling theatre.
Which is unfortunate, as the cast is not short of talent. Colin Lane showed some classic comedic timing, of which there really should have been more – there are plenty of jokes scattered around the play, and some good, funny, horribly awkward situations. Although the humour of the play is poorly executed, but it is still there, and I could appreciate what was trying to be achieved.
However for some reason there seems to be a total lack of chemistry between them – the relationships that are put at stake in the performance never matter to the audience, because they are never made to matter. Their ostensibly significant motivations of family or love are just thrown in by name and barebones behavioural reference, without ever proving to the audience that these relationships are valuable.
Furthermore, the set is fraught with a multimedia program that starts as an interesting novelty and is halfway abandoned by the mid section, that became more distraction than enhancement. I was disappointed, as the beginning of the play uses music, sound effects and film in a way I found highly moving – the script says it all: ‘Introduce the sound of the quoll’s heartbeat softly. This underscores the action to the end of the scene’. There was a profound silence in the audience as the heartbeat that had been present for the last ten minutes, the heartbeat we had all wanted to continue, halted as the lethal injection was given to the badly wounded quoll.
The final scene of the play, where Piper finally confronts Andy, I found a confusing mess, both in clichéd language and melodramatic behaviour, to a degree worthy of The Bold and the Beautiful, not helped by a soppy pop-score playing over the projection of a quoll scurrying around in the bush, thus restoring balance and hope to the universe.
This play attempts to do so much and in my opinion, therein lies it’s problem. There is no steady theme, there is no likeable character. Everyone is flawed and nobody is redeemed. The penultimate scene of the play had audience members around me sighing, or even laughing, at a scene not meant to be funny, it was so unconvincing.
And frankly, I don’t know exactly where to lay the blame, where everything went so wrong. Was it the writer delivering clichéd dialogue, normative, predictable plotlines and a thematic fiasco? Did the director micromanage the actors into robots? Have the actors failed the script?
Either way – decide for yourself. Extinction is showing at the Arts Centre every day until the 13th of August. Head over to artscentremelbourne.com.au for more information and bookings.
Written by Jim Thomas