Friday 25 August 2023

HOW TO SAVE A TREE: Theatre Review

WHAT: How To Save A Tree
WHEN: 22-26 August 2023
WHERE: Gasworks (Theatrette)
WRITTEN BY: Louise Hopewell, Megan J Reidl, Bruce Shearer, and Gregory Vines
DIRECTED BY: Elizabeth Walley
SOUND BY: John Jenkin
LIGHTING BY: David Silvester
PERFORMED BY: Rhys Carter, Lansy Feng, Alec Gilbert, Cosima Gilbert, Cassandra Hart, Rohan D Hingorani, Carrie Moczynski, and Gabrielle Ng
STAGE MANAGED BY: Isabella Gilbert

Rohan D Hingorani, Cosima Gilbert, Lansy Feng, Gabrielle Ng - photo supplied

Melbourne Writers' Theatre has become known for their seasons of short play collections around themes of place and people. The latest iteration is How To Save A Tree which is being presented in the Gasworks Theatrette this weekend and the theme this time is protest.

Four short plays by member playwrights have been selected for performance to commemorate moments which have incited protest for social change - to varying levels of success. Bruce Shearer has tackled the suffragette movement with 'Jennie Baines versus The World'. Megan J Riedl investigates the art world occupations of the climate change movement in 'The Time is Now'. Louise Hopewell interrogates the absurd connection between Novak Djokovic and the asylum seekers locked up at the Park Hotel in her play 'Waiting Game'. Finally, Gregory Vines brings us a surprisingly heart warming look at the camaraderie which has built over the years with the Albert Park Grand Prix protestors in his piece 'Good Trouble'.

I personally love a good protest and firmly believe no significant social change has ever taken place without aggressive disruption. How To Save A Tree reaffirms my beliefs. As a woman I have a real soft spot for the suffragettes and I was quite excited for the program to start there with the life story of Jennie Baines. Whilst Shearer managed to condense Baines' whole life into this little play and Cassandra Hart did a magnificent job of bringing her to life I personally think the short play tried to do too much. Full of tiny snapshot moments across her entire career as a Salvation Army member in the UK through to her senior years in Melbourne as a Magistrate there is little time to really appreciate the impact of her work or the struggles she must have faced to be seen and heard and honoured the way she was. Shearer has tried to give some emotional depth by infilling a love story with her husband (Rhys Carter) but it is too little and none of that really speaks to the social change she effected.

Carrie Moczynki and Alec Gilbert brought a bundle of energy and zeal in Riedl's 'The Time Is Now'. The two actors recreate the 2022 occupation of NGV where two protestors glued themselves to the Picasso painting 'Massacre In Korea'. The genius of this play is how Riedl layers in the current climate change protest with Picasso's protest informing his art. Flitting across time long past, the present and a time in the perhaps not so distant future, Riedl links Picasso's rebellious painting style, the rebellious content of the art work itself, and the current protestors disrupting in the face of climate change. Perhaps one the of most compelling scenes is the one (pictured above) where a grandmother (Lansy Feng) tells the story of a time when the last car filled up with petrol and other intriguing anecdotes before the climate crisis event took place. 

Adding to the beauty and power of this short play is how Elizabeth Walley (director) has the ensemble replicate the painting in the background - an ever-present reminder of violence and ignorance. Walley has a talent for moving and shaping an ensemble. It is a talent she gets to exercise regularly in these Melbourne Writers' Theatre seasons, and to be honest, it is the thing which saves How To Save A Tree from tedium because, as interesting as the topics are, much of the writing is expositional and this is not the strongest acting ensemble the team have ever gathered on stage. Some of the cast are strong (Alec and Cosima Gilbert and Cassandra Hart for example) but even performers I have seen and admired in other shows were disappointing. Moczynski and Feng, for example, seemed to have real trouble with their lines. On the other hand, some of the other ensemble members were barely even used.

Hopewell's 'Waiting Game' juxtaposes modern celebrity outrage with a great Australian shame. When tennis star Djokovic was detained during the Australian Open COVID scandal he was placed in the same hotel the government had been keeping asylum seekers in for years prior. Gabrielle Ng plays an ABC TV journalist interviewing an asylum seeker advocate (Moczynski). Suddenly the tennis player turns up at the hotel and we enter a dream sequence where the advocate sits Djokovic (Carter) and an asylum seeker (Rohan D Hingorani) down to share some tea. The absurdity of the attention Djokovic got and the speed with which he was released is heightened when placed against the plight of the men held in indefinite detention. 

The style of this play is a bit too expository for my taste but it could have been powerful if Moczynski didn't struggle with her lines so much. I also think Walley needed to spend more time with Moczynski to really drill down and find the dynamics in the writing. Hingorani's understated and truthful performance spoke volumes about us and about the circumstances these men find themselves in.

How To Save A Tree ends with a sweet little play about the Albert Park protestors. Vines introduces us to all of the characters who have been protesting the Grand Prix since it was first proposed. Yes, they are still at it and yes, the police are still arresting them. A holding cell becomes packed to the rim with all the repeat offenders who have somehow come to form their own little extended family. This event may be all they have in common, but they see each other every year and a beautiful bond is formed, emphasised by the chorus of 'Do You Hear The People Sing' (from Les Miserables) at the end. 

The song invites us all to join in. To join in the song and also to join in the act of protest. Find your passion and fight for your beliefs. This is the message How To Save A Tree is trying to impart. John Jenkin's sound design reminds us that protest is not a quiet act, and it is not a safe act. The playwrights remind us how essential that act is though.

2 Stars

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