Thursday, 23 January 2020

Eyes Wide Woke - Theatre Review

What: Eyes Wide Woke
When: 21 January - 1 February 2020
Where: The Court House Hotel
Written by: Katherine Chloe Atkins
Directed by: Kashmir Sinnamon
Performed by: Ashleigh Clarke, Emma Drysdale, Luke Jacka, Ashley Tardy, and Joshua White
Stage managed by: Mazz Ryan
Noah Jacka, Joshua White, Ashley Tardy and Ashleigh Clarke
It has been a bit of a slow start this year, in terms of high quality theatre so it is with a huge sigh of relief I get to tell you about Eyes Wide Woke which is playing at the Court House Hotel in North Melbourne. Part of the Midsumma Festival, Eyes Wide Woke investigates what it is to be an "inner city, woke" Australian - the good and the bad.

Being woke is the new derogatory word (taking the place of 'politically correct') being bandied about by the LNP so that they can self-justify socially discriminating and economically devastating policies and pat themselves on the back for being the sensible quiet Australians. Just like it's predecessor, the word woke can be a term which means something important and positive, but according to Atkins (playwright) it can also be a facade used to disempower and disenfranchise. All of these possibilities are explored in Eyes Wide Woke.

Atkin's ideas tread into dangerous territory, but flirting with potentially unpopular ideas is what makes this play so intriguing, and those blurry lines are handled well by Sinnamon (director). They hover in the air for us to poke and prod at with our minds for a moment before moving on to the next idea. He allows them to titillate but not corner the audience into a defensive position.

The story begins in the apartment of engaged couple Valorie (Clarke) and Sara (Tardy). Sara is preparing the house for a dinner party and the conversation about 'wokeness' begins before even a word is uttered - what music is appropriate? Which magazine should be on top of the pile?

Valorie comes home from work and we start to go deeper into the conversation. If you thought Sara was woke, wait until you meet Valorie. Valorie scoffs at Sara transferring a lovingly cooked meal into take away containers and an Uber Eats bag so that they look like they are time poor, but then panics about giving their guest Jasmin (Drysdale) - who is a sex worker - the one mismatched wine glass in case she takes it to mean she is an outsider.

The guests arrive in spurts. Angelo (White) is the outrageously extroverted gay friend and arriving at the same time as Jasmine is Noah (Jacka), who is the ex 'we're still friends' boyfriend of Valorie. In a superbly crafted Friends style satire, an evening of cameraderie, intimacy, and expose takes place over a very deliciously smelling pasta meal.

I usually don't like realism in theatre very much but the way Sinnamon has staged this play made me very happy indeed. Sinnamon has literally inserted the audience into the apartment so that we feel we are in the room and at the dinner party with the actors. Or perhaps it is more true to say we are cameras filming these events from a range of different angles? I definitely feel Atkin's background in screen writing comes through in the number of locations there are and the structure of the scenes.

Perhaps my one comment would be I think the toilet (yes, there is a toilet in this show which is used to great effect), and the balcony should be switched around. The toilet scenes are about privacy and secrecy in a very open plan environment but it kind of sits in the lounge room at the moment, whereas the balcony is at the end of a corridor. Something to think about in the next staging of this fabulous play.

And there will be a next staging. Eyes Wide Woke is a great play with the potential to expand into a more significant work with main stage potential I think. Of course, this only works if the ensemble are up to the challenge and they really are. Tardy could, perhaps, exhibit a greater level of anxiety but that is being rather picky.

There were only two moments which didn't work for me. The first was Sara finding Valorie's cigarettes. It was too easy and too quick to really ring true. The same could be said for the final moments. The transition to raw pain and loss was too quick. This is probably a directorial problem to solve. The audience needs to have a moment to process what has happened before the devastation is allowed to settle.

The journeys each of the character's take are surprising and the shocks just keep coming from start to finish. Questions are asked and lines are crossed and nobody gets to keep the social facade they have chosen except Jasmine who is the one authentic person in the room. The hilarity rises along with the tensions and along the way Atkins also raises the binary sexuality question to a whole other level I had not considered before.

Everything in Eyes Wide Woke is slick and purposefull and excellently executed. The script is clever, the direction is insightful, and the acting is superb. I really look forward to seeing this play grow.

4.5 Stars

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