Tuesday 28 May 2024

KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL
WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory)
WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024
CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford
DIRECTED BY: Trey Lyford
SET DESIGN BY: PAyton Smith
COMPOSITION BY: Ethan Mentzer
PERFORMED BY: Jacinta Yelland
STAGE MANAGED BY: Emmie Parker

Jacinta Yelland - photo by Ashley Smith

Our planet is suffocating, and our country is dying. What the wildfires aren't burning, the floods are washing away. Environmental disasters run parallel to the societal catastrophes human beings inflict on one another and all this is building up to what has to be some great conflagration in the near future because things can't keep going the way they are... Although based in Philadelphia, Jacinta Yelland has dug deep into her Australian roots to create KOAL with Trey Lyford and this show packs a punch in just over an hour. Riffing off that tiny Koala which survived the bush fires in 2019, referencing the endless mining disasters we experience in this country, and looking to Yelland's own family history of indentured servitude, KOAL journeys from funny to frightening in the blink of a baby koala's eye.

The show begins with a young girl dancing around a tree but soon we hear crackling and just about every Australian knows that sound. Fire. The girl runs off and we see a koala. Suddenly we are at a zoo being welcomed by a wildlife warrior with very strong resemblances to a certain Australian zoo dynasty. The zookeeper wants to introduce us to a koala and assures us the fire is very far away so we can ignore it. 

Then we meet Stevo, a miner. He goes down a cave to check methane levels but there is a cave in. The fire rages on and smoke starts to fill the room. Meanwhile the young girl is trying to attend school but doesn't meet the dress standards - shoes...

KOAL is a towering inferno performed with incredible skill by Yelland, who is a very highly trained physical theatre performer. Her characters are well-defined and performed with great nuance. The three stories arc to a delightful, if devastating, crescendo under the boughs of the gum tree which has held centre stage the whole time. I remember reading a long time ago that the reason there are so many eucalyptus trees in Australia is because they are more resilient to fire. Over the millennia more fragile native plant life has burned away, but the gum trees stand strong and tall because of their oil content. Even though it is toxic to them, that same oil is in the very leaves which keep our koalas alive. There has to be some kind of metaphor in there somewhere... but I digress.

As Yelland morphs from character to character and weaves her stories together, the tree at the centre of the stage morphs along with her. Payton Smith has created the perfect travelling set. In all there are 3 ladders of different sizes, and they are all strewn with brown paper woven to represent bark (paper bark?) or rock as needed. Gum leaves poke out here and there to the satisfaction of the little koala. I always hate ladders on stage but, to be honest, I didn't even realise that is what it was until part way into the show as it starts morphing into trucks and caves and kitchens and all sorts of things. Perhaps towards the end all the fiddling becomes a bit too much, but the show is just short enough for it to avoid becoming tiresome. Ethan Mentzner's compositions and sound design are faultless and take us everywhere the story needs to go very powerfully indeed.

If I do have a criticism (and yes, I do have one), I feel like the Indigenous story is the least elegantly realised and integrated into the overall structure of KOAL. The work assumes the audience has read all of the publicity material and, to be honest, I thought it was a story about refugees until I remembered what I had read. On the bright side, this play works if you read it that way and this is a very current and urgent interpretation. On the sad side, the stories of the Stolen Generation are important, and we miss an important part of the storytelling if it goes by without being noticed. I am surprised Lyford (director) didn't pick up on the ambiguity but perhaps, given he is not Australian, he didn't realise there could be another interpretation. It would be very unfair to expect international artists to be up to date with Australia's constant shameful social policies.

KOAL is equal parts delightful and a dystopian nightmare. Emerging from the embers the characters leave it to us to work out if catastrophes are a thing of our past or the only thing we have to look forward to.

4 Stars


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KOAL: Theatre Review

WHAT: KOAL WHERE: Theatre Works (Explosives Factory) WHEN: 22 May - 1 June 2024 CREATED BY: Jacinta Yelland and Trey Lyford DIRECTED BY: Tre...