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THEATRE: Strange Attractor

Written by Adam Moussa on 4th November, 2009

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STRANGE ATTRACTOR
Written by Sue Smith
Directed by Nick MarchandStage
Design by Jo Briscoe
Lighting Design by Bernie
Tan Composer / Sound Design by Steve Francis
Starring: Blazey Best, Ivan Donato, Darren Gilshenan, Peter Kowitz, Josh McConville and Sandy Winton

Are Australians an unhappy people? Quick response is no, but significant chunks of our film and theatre works would say argue otherwise. Delving into national identity on a personal level, there is so much in Strange Attractor to evoke déjà vu. There are shades of Andrew Bovell’s heady drama in the play, without the complex webs and subtle revelations found in his film Lantana and play When the Rain Stops Falling. The similarity is in the depiction of the fallout – the character reactions to a horrific event, either in the distant or immediate past. This entails anger, sadness, claustrophobia and guilt – above all, guilt. These conventions pervade contemporary Australian drama and now begin to draw fire, labelled ‘wrist-slashers’. Rachel Ward’s recent film Beautiful Kate drew the very same criticism, despite heapings of praise and positive reviews. So, in the Australian tradition, Strange Attractor is dark and guilt-ridden. However, like all of pieces mentioned above, it’s the tradition done right, which makes it fascinating and watchable.

It wouldn’t feel right without an outback setting, thus the focus is on railway workers in Western Australia. There are four of them, plus a server (well, barman), working lengthy shifts at a time, paid handsomely but far away from their families. Their tragic event is the death of a co-worker in a storm. Of course his death circumstance was a little mysterious. Cue intrigue, guilt and disquiet. Cue introduction of Colin (Darren Gilshenan), the corporate outsider who plies each individual character with questions to deduce the reality of the mishap. The single act unfolds over an hour and a half with overlapping time shifts between the present, after the death and the past, leading up to it. Initially it catches you off guard, but the disorientation is momentary. What follows is a rich exposition of the realistically-drawn characters, exploring the usual Australian ideas – namely mateship, guilt (yes, more of it) and finding where we fit in the world – the life of a self-aggrandizing little fish in a big pond. Subtlety is key; playwright Sue Smith is careful not to badger the audience with explicit didactic lessons, affording the play a look at mateship without it degenerating into a nauseating string of “we’re mates”, “I thought we were mates”, “that’s what mates do”, etc.

The action all revolves around the simple (and perhaps excessively plain) bar set (yet another passionately Australian ideal) and director Nick Marchand has made great use of the Stables Theatre space, keeping action constrained. The entire cast gives a stellar performance, emotional and resounding, and only occasionally feeling over the top. Audience attention will not wander thanks to a smooth flow of dialogue, which is often darkly humorous. The backdrop of the GFC and shifting superpowers services the play nicely – there could be no more perfect mode of exploring China’s burgeoning influence than through a mining scenario.

Strange Attractor is a beautiful play. It won’t shock and won’t challenge but it will enthrall you. It’s sad and it’s guilty, but the bleakness is brought to life very well by Griffin and this attractor makes for great theatre!

You will love it if: you’re tired of namby pamby nationalism and want to see a little less sheen on the Australian identity.
You will hate it if: you’ve had your fill of guilt, blame and the red centre.

Strange Attractor is playing at Griffin Theatre Company, Stables Theatre Nimrod St, Kings Cross until November 21st

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