A funky new Brisbane theatre has opened our critic’s eyes to the new “gold standard” for a play.
A funky new Brisbane theatre has opened our critic’s eyes to the new “gold standard” for a play.

'Convicts, dope smoking... this is how a play should be'

REVIEW

Conviction is my new gold standard for a play - one hour long. I can pretty well take anything that's an hour long and this is a good hour in the compact New Benner Theatre at Metro Arts' funky new home at West Village, West End.

In just one hour this play by Zoey Dawson (the third and final in a series of new works by The Hive Collective) encapsulated the broad sweep of Australian history since Europeans arrived although there are big chunks of the story (most of it in fact) missing.

So one minute we are in the convict era with mother and daughter Agatha (Luisa Prosser) and Lillian (Emily Burton) who are obviously convicts trying to pass themselves off as free settlers.

Lillian wants to be, after a few false starts of thinking about it, a writer, and she thinks she might write a story about the original inhabitants but comes to the conclusion that she can't really appropriate a First Nations story. Fair enough.

The opening scenes follow dialogue about play writing and other matters delivered by the actors on a darkened stage which sets the scene for us by laying bare what is inside the writer's head.

When the lights go up the scene is a riff on stories about convict times and there have been many including Marcus Clarke's For The term of His Natural Life. This part of the play is basically a good old fashioned spoof featuring all four cast members with Kevin Spink playing an officer twit called William and the lofty Jeremiah Wrap as a convict.

You can see his point - Jeremiah Wray as a convict in Conviction : photo Stephen Henry
You can see his point - Jeremiah Wray as a convict in Conviction : photo Stephen Henry

It's silly stuff with some interesting insights into writing, history and imperialism.

Later we fast forward to a flat in, Melbourne I think, where Burton is a wannabe writer who is writing, well, not very much and getting distracted by smoking a bong, among other things. It gets complicated - there is a car accident and she runs over the dog and there are all sorts of dramas.

You get the sense that Dawson is just downloading scenes that have flitted across her mind at times and they are funny and even grotesque. There's a grisly murder scene at one stage when one of the characters is killed and the others feed off him. It's quite post apocalyptic and shows that Dawson has read Cormac McCarthy's The Road and kind of regurgitated a snippet from it for her own purposes.

Emily Burton and Luisa Prosser in Conviction : photo Stephen Henry
Emily Burton and Luisa Prosser in Conviction : photo Stephen Henry

One of the most outrageous scenes involves the mother, (Prosser), breastfeeding her adult daughter (Burton) and I couldn't help thinking of the Little Britain sketch in which this happens. You'll recall the adult man (David Walliams) demands of his mother "Bitty!" and she whips out her breast in company and off they go. Shockingly funny and I'm guessing Zoey Dawson may also be a Little Britain fan. The show is of course way too politically incorrect for the current age.

Director Kate Wild writes some helpful notes in the program in which she says that in Conviction "Zoey Dawson takes her self-doubt on a Homeric journey of self discovery with the playwright as hero".

"With a clumsy and over the top first draft as her starting point she travels first through the Pit of Despair and then the Fires of Hell to emerge triumphant on the other side," Wild says. So it's a play for the theatre world and anyone interested in the writing process but it's not pretentious about that. I love independent productions when the theatre becomes a kind of laboratory for mad scientist playwrights. And hell, a play that is just an hour long - that works for me! Take note everyone.

Conviction is on in the New Benner Theatre at Metro Arts until March 27; metroarts.com.au

Originally published as Convicts, dope smoking... this is how a play should be


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