Sunday 25 June 2023

BLEACHED: Theatre Review

WHAT: Bleached
WHEN: 22 June - 1 July 2023
WHERE: Bluestone Church Arts Space
WRITTEN BY: Laura Collins
DIRECTED BY: Ruby Rees
PERFORMED BY: Lansy Feng, Madeleine Magee-Carr, Megan Mitchell, Anthony Pontonio, and Eva Rees
SET BY: Moya Lucy
LIGHTING BY: Oliver Ross
SOUND BY: Ethan Hunter
STAGE MANAGED BY: Zadie Kenney McCracken and Jarman Oakley

Megan Mitchell and Anthony Pontonio - photo by Sarah Clarke

Last night I saw Bleached at the Bluestone Church Arts Space, presented by WIT Inc. Back in March I reviewed Trash Pop Butterflies, Dance, Dance, Paradise! and to be honest I feel like just saying read that review and then I can just go off and have a cup of tea. I won't do that though because they are different plays presented by different companies and some aspects of Bleached deserve exceptional praise.

As with Maki Morita's Trash Pop Butterflies, Laura Collins' (writer) Bleached is a dystopian post-dramatic dramatisation of humanity's existential crisis in the face of the impending climate change crisis. Although the two plays have different writers, to be honest it is very hard to tell. Both plays use a broken short, sharp, sketch structure to jump from idea to idea with multi-narrative layers which are usually designed to reiterate the point of the play from different perspectives. Sadly, both plays are so over-laden with ideas, topics, details, and minutiae delivered in such an angry, shouty way that the audience gets tired, stops following and just turns off. This is exactly what you don't want to happen with call to action plays!

Bleached takes its name from the bleaching of the coral. Comparing Australians to cockroaches, Collins lambasts us by comparing us to cockroaches racing around the world in a last, mad attempt to see all of the world's attractions before every country goes into lockdown. This concept is strong, especially with the Victorian extended experience of lockdowns and also the travesty of tourism which happened just before the Uluru protections were implemented. 

In Bleached, all the world is losing its colour and backpackers are racing to chase the last vestiges, completely oblivious to the fact they are hastening the white out. A countdown of countries closing their borders sits in counterpoint to the countries the backpackers have visited and the ones they are still trying to get to. As I said earlier, this concept is incredibly strong but the script is so full of 'stuff' it is hard to process and the characters are poorly defined which means that, although intellectually this makes sense, it is impossible to engage with them on any kind of empathetic level. 

Even if we could, why would we want to? According to Collins' script all relationships are a power imbalance and the people we love most do mean things to us. Bleached give us very little to like about ourselves and no hope at all for people or the planet. Things don't even turn out well for the rats! Oh, and it is very shouty...

This brings me to the direction. Bleached is a hard task for any director and sadly Ruby Rees doesn't have the skill to surmount the dramaturgical challenges Collins' has created. It is hard to follow who is who on stage in Bleached. In the olden days this would have been solved with hats. Whilst we are beyond that now, Rees could have used costumes better to help us follow. I note there is no costume designer credited so all I will say is the absence is evident by way of confusion of styles, lack of unified aesthetic and poor definition of characters.

Apart from the costumes, the rest of the production elements are pretty outstanding. Moya Lucy (set designer) has created a diamond cut white playing space representing the melting polar caps. The rear walls are textured with with white plastic and brown cardboard trash which is littering our planet and killing our world. It is a powerful aesthetic. I just wish she had allowed more depth in the playing space to give the cast and director more space to work with. 

The big stars of Bleached are Oliver Ross (lighting) and Ethan Hunter (sound). If you saw the recent production of MOTH at Theatre Works you will understand the quality of the work these two designers have created. Whilst Pajanti and Verhagen have very different aesthetics, the work of Ross and Hunter is as intimately engaged with the creation and driving forward motion of Bleached as the more experienced pair were for MOTH.

The performances in Bleached are good although I didn't understand some of the characters. Nimo (Lansy Feng) was a complete mystery to me - not her fault. On the other side of the spectrum, the two characters which I felt I connected to most were Anika (Megan Mitchell) and Gab (Anthony Pontonio). Madeleine Magee Carr did a lot of shouting. I don't know how much of that was direction and how much was actor interpretation, but it was irritating and off putting - especially in her big monologue at the end. Eva Rees (Santa/Bohdi) is strong but, again, I didn't understand her two characters. I don't even want to speak about the interpretive dance moment. Just get rid of it!

Bleached is a play which sits on a great idea and the team has worked hard on this production. What I wished for was some humour and some compassion. It is hard for the audience to stay and watch/listen for an hour and a half and then go off and create change when all we have experienced is a barrage of anger and despair. If you want to create hope you have to give at least a glimpse of something to hope for. Bleached doesn't even allow us to believe in love...

2.5 Stars

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