Sunday 15 March 2020

Running With Emus - Theatre Review

What: Running With Emus
When: 11 - 22 March 2020
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written by: Merrilee Moss
Directed by: Kim Durban
Performed by: Sam Baxter, Kevin Dee, Gregory J Fryer, Julie Nihill, and Elizabeth Sly
Design and stage management by: Adam (Gus) Powers
Lighting by: Jacob Shears
Julie Nihill and Elizabeth Sky - photo by Darren Gill
I don't mind a bit of Australiana on stage these days. I have decided to get over my cultural cringe and am an avid champion of Australian plays and am always excited to see presenters and producers taking them on and presenting them to audiences. The latest to hit the Melbourne stages is Running With Emus which is on the VCE curriculum and is being presented at La Mama Courthouse this week.

Running With Emus is written by Moss, who has strong track record as an Australian playwright, and is directed by Durban who has a strong track record as a director. Add to that the talents and prowess of Nihill (Patricia) and Fryer (Pie) and I expected to be in for a real treat.

Running With Emus as a story about an old woman who is trying to live out the last of her life in seclusion with her best mate - her house. Her granddaughter, Krystal (Sly), drops in unexpectedly and the woman is forced to feel connection again.

No. Wait. The story is about a young woman, Krystal, who has had a bad breakup and runs to the less than comforting arms of her grandmother to recover and possibly mend some burnt bridges in the family.

Noooooo... Running With Emus is about a small town with a racism problem. A young woke activist blows into town and decides to tell them how they should run their community.

No, that's not right either. Running With Emus is the story of a young woman returning to her ancestral home, reconnecting with her family, the land, and maybe falling a little bit in love with the local school principal (Baxter) as she bumbles her way into country life.

Nope. Let me see. This play is about... Do you see my problem?

Running With Emus feels like several different plays crammed into 1. Or perhaps it is more correct to say it is a 5 act play squeezed into 1 act. There are great ideas here, and intriguing characters and several good story lines but they are all competing for time and space on stage. Moss either needs to embrace a longer format for this idea to truly work, or create a triptych of one act plays to make these ideas and characters really sing the way I think she wants them to.

On the surface, and according to the publicity, Running With Emus is about Krystal coming into a quiet country town and helping them move towards becoming a 'Refugee Friendly Zone'. Along the way she starts a fight, makes some friends, and forces her grummy to understand the truth about herself and her family history. Whilst probably on the right side of politics, I have to say I felt everything about Krystal personified exactly what country people hate about woke city folk with few redeeming qualities except a willingness to try and get involved.

Ignoring the problems with the script though, I also found myself disappointed with the staging. I thought in the hands of someone as skilled and experienced as Durban, the flaws would be minimised and the magic revealed. I couldn't have been farther from the truth.

Running With Emus is described as a non-naturalistic play in all of the publicity and I can't help thinking Durban and Powers (designer) took this as some sort of dare and tried to make this production as naturalistic as they possibly could. The stage is full of real domestic detritus and kitsch, and the acting is realism 101 with performance techniques from the early 20th century.

Part of the fault is the design. The stage is literally cut in half by the verandah - which is really a loungeroom? - and so there is no depth for the actors to perform in. Thus everyone comes on stage, form a line, open out and speak directly to the audience rather than each other, and then go off stage. It is one thing for a director to not get in the way of the play, but I do expect the team to be encouraged to be creative and support the work, not bury it in a mire of visual tedium! The exception is the lighting (Shears) which does as much as it can to bring texture and allegory to this world Moss has written.

Fryer and Dee (Sparrow/Jim) are excellent and my only sorrow is how under-utilised Fryer is, with the smallest role. This is one of the things which helps drag this play into a story which belongs in last century, not this one - the subtext hurts. The two new kids on the block, Sly and Baxter (Raffaele/Goose) have great energy but need to develop subtlety and nuance in their craft to create a real connection with the audience.

Running With Emus is a great centrepiece role for Nihill. Patricia's journey is complex and is really the only fully realised character in the play. Nihill is a wonderful curmudgeon but I think she and Durban failed to explore deep enough to find what small things would give Patricia pleasure. There are a few little moments in the script which could open these doors for the audience so that we care a whole lot more about what happens at the end, but at the moment the role is played in a single palette which makes all of the moments blurr.

Running With Emus is actually a great script for the VCE curriculum because it literally covers every single thing ever said about the inclusion of refugees and a whole lot more besides. In the classroom it would be a cornucopia of things to explore surrounding patriotism, colonisation, immigration, ancestry, refugeeism, regionalism vs urbanism, political activism, the dreaming, and the milking behaviour of cows.

On stage this production is a play which is trying to do much and direction which is trying to do too little. I do find myself wondering if the staging is like it is because of an intention to tour. I don't find that much of an excuse though.

The comedy has to force it's way through to us but it is there. Moss has given us some classic one-liners, such as Patricia talking about another character and saying "No one will die wondering what she thinks!" The three old guys (Pie, Sparrow, and Goose) are also funny and would be a much stronger tool if only they weren't shoved into a corner.

As I said earlier, I really wanted to like this show. I think the script for Running With Emus carries a lot of good material and with some intensive dramaturgical work could be a magical concoction. This production is more dated than spiced ham though. My biggest regret is that this is a school show and I want young people to be enthused and excited about theatre. This production is just going to make them look to other outlets for entertainment I am afraid.

2.5 Stars

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