Home at the End by Duncan Ley
Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre, 4-14 September 2013
How many ways can you tell a story? And how can you tell if it’s true? And if you don’t like your own history, can you rewrite it?
Reading from a storybook; interpretive dance; shadow play; masked mime; puppetry; writing on a computer; imaginary discourse; counselling and therapy sessions; plumbing the depths of family history; game shows; reportage; musical commentary – between them playwright Duncan Ley, director Jarrad West and the cast and crew of Home at the End employ all of these methods to bring us a tale of post-traumatic stress disorder and personal redemption.
If all that sounds a bit drama school, it is, in parts, but is rescued from pretentious self-indulgence by some solid acting and script-writing. The obvious storytelling segments are expertly presented and the audience is sucked into the narrative, in whatever way it is presented. Once again, Duncan Driver proves himself to be a mesmerising raconteur (he played a similar role as First Voice in Canberra Rep’s production of Under Milk Wood earlier this year) to Molly, the little girl who comes to visits his shack, followed by her mother, Andie, and, by extension, us.
The play is weaker in the naturalistic moments as the contemporary dialogue sounds forced. The audience may enjoy the witty banter about writing being a form of masturbation, but the one-liners occasionally feel as though we are watching one of those sitcoms where the jokes are shoehorned into the script for the benefit of a laugh.
Isaac Reilly, as Joe Smith, has one of the toughest roles of the play as he attempts to present realism in the midst of heightened drama. Helen McFarlane plays his wife Andie, who relishes the compound challenge of mixing the sensible everyday with surreal extremes. And some singing.
In the foyer as we were leaving, I heard the comment, ‘It must be a great play for the actors.’ That’s a fair point, as there are lots of complementary roles to play but this makes it sound as though it isn’t equally rewarding for spectators, which is untrue. It could be tightened and trimmed, as the play is a vessel which is bursting with so many ideas and themes that it seems to overspill and leak some from the sides. Perhaps a slightly smaller measure is required, if we are to see through a glass, darkly.
The subject matter is confrontational and a man’s descent into madness and destitution as a result of what he did or didn’t do at the moment of crisis, is appalling although compelling. Macabre hospital scenes and Kafka-esque interrogations (surely the name Josef cannot be a coincidence) are contrasted with gritty streets and soulless bars in an urban wilderness that feels depressingly familiar. Elements of humour highlighted by the ensemble cast keep the performance from being doom-ridden and harrowing.
The half-time shock seems to come out of nowhere, and blasts what was a fairly comfortable fable into something deeper, darker and more threatening. So many concepts are exploded, that there is barely time to consider them all before we are plunged back into the story. It is a play of two distinct halves as though something has been ripped apart and now cannot fit back together.
Set (Nick Valois), lighting (Kelly McGannon) and costumes (Emma Sekuless) are all put through their paces in this multi-tiered spectacle and pass the test with honours. It is clear the crew are working as hard as the cast to present this original, demanding and questioning drama.
One of those questions being, if the play is, as playwright Duncan Ley is quoted as explaining, ‘a gift of Canberra to itself’, and it’s the thought that counts, what exactly was he thinking? Pondering that poser (that’s without a ‘u’) kept me awake long into the small hours. I love theatre that can do that.