Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Choice - Theatre Review

WHAT: Choice
WHERE: The Owl and Cat Theatre
WHEN: 14 - 25 November
Devised by: Carolyn Dawes and Fiona Scarlett
Directed by: Carolyn Dawes
Performed by: Gemma Flannery, Clancy Fraser, Victoria Haslam, Ben Santamaria, Fiona Scarlett,  and Ryan Silwinski
Sound by: Mybro

Photo by Emmanuell Aroney

Choice is the play which kicks off The Owl and Cat's new season, 'Still'. Choice is an immersive work which investigates the lived experiences of people connected with abortion. Using verbatim techniques and placing the audience in amongst the confused and searching souls makes this theatrical experience much more intimate than most, but it is the tone and treatment of such a controversial topic which makes Choice stand out as one of this years great pieces of theatre.

We are all sitting in a waiting room. It is not a cold, sterile room but it is a waiting room none the less. We sit beside other people already waiting - watching them flick through magazines, shuffle around, and generally exhibit a sense of disquiet and impatience. We become a part of this montage as we choose our seats and settle in to wait with them. A sound which is not quite a ticking clock yet not quite a heartbeat fills the space. None of us feel inclined to speak. The water cooler stares at us, daring us to break from the crowd to quench our thirst. No one does.

Fraser breaks the silence and leads the conversation - the whole event is a conversation really - with her tale of accidental pregnancy. Flannery cuts in next. Here is where we are reminded this is verbatim work. There is something really magical which happens with verbatim when it is someone of a different age or gender reciting the words of a real person. It somehow brings home the event as a witnessing of lived experience as well as story telling. There is an ultimate truth and universality in the lie of the person speaking as if they were the other.

There are many ways to use verbatim. People are generally most familiar with the headphone verbatim technique used by Roslyn Oades. Dawes and Scarlett chose a different route. They sourced recorded and written lived experiences and have blended these stories together in a tightly woven tale which exposes an unresolved social experience of complexity and confusion. 

Half the cast are reciting from audio recordings mirrors of a truth and rigor in their performance. The other half worked off written responses and have been invited by Dawes to explore that in a more traditional manner. It is not obvious to us who used which technique which demonstrates Dawes' masterful handling of the material, the actors and the mis-en-scene. There are moments which could easily have fallen into melodrama but Dawes has kept a tight rein on what is a hugely emotional topic. 

I think a sign of the great success of this show is around half way through I stopped feeling like I was in a waiting room and instead felt as if I was in a support group. The stories move away from those women who have had abortions to the people around them - the partner, the brother, the best friend. I have lived experience of people who have had abortion - apparently one in three women have - so I felt I was in a room where the sharing of this phenomena was safe and honest, painful and liberating, important and put in perspective.

Choice does not preach. It does not take a moral stance. It asks questions. Questions like how did you feel at the time? How did the people around you react? How did you react? What was good? What was bad? Why did you make your decision? What do you think now? Perhaps one of the most intriguing stories was the one told by Haslam about an abortion which took place just after abortion was legalised in New Zealand.

The art of the verbatim technique is in the editing and Dawes and Scarlett have crafted a beautiful tableau. Stories interact and intertwine with each other, just as the issue interacts and intertwines with society. Dawes has also demonstrated a real artistry with the use of lighting. Spotlights everywhere but every story is told just outside of them. Not quite in the shadows but never fully being in the light - much like the topic and experience itself. 

The sound design is also perfect. This show is proof that you don't need a lot to create a perfect piece of theatre. You just need to make sure what you do is precise and deliberate and thoughtful.

Choice is a piece of theatre nobody should miss. It is also a great example of the care and attention The Owl and Cat are putting into the curation and realisation of their shows. The quality control is first rate and this is the show to see if you want to know how it's done.

5 Stars

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