For their second subscription show in 2009, the Tasmanian Theatre Company renew their acquaintance with Griffin Theatre Company (who last collaborated with TTC on the compelling production of Don’t Say the Words in 2008), and together with MTC, the companies present Peter Evans’ production of Steve Rodgers’ Savage River.
While the script could be shorter, Savage River has a strength and a sense of place and time at its heart that will surely see it become a familiar work in the Australian contemporary repetoire: it seems to capture a cultural moment a bit like Michael Gow’s Away did in the 1980s. The script is still raw, and at times could do with some refining. For example, the humour which provides welcome relief from the intensity of the central narrative is sometimes overstated – one go at a punchline should be enough. But the characters and their relationships are more than engaging enough to sustain the work, and the dialogue has a heightened sense of rythm to its urban mundanity which is absorbing (if occasionally self-conscious).
Peter Evans’ production is accentuated by a tense and pervasive score and soundscape, and also a set capable of locating the world of the play. These elements layer the work with a richness to support the text and performance, and recall the outstanding production values of last year’s Don’t Say the Words. Evans should be commended for harnessing the skills of Kelly Ryall (sound design) and Jed Kurzel (composer). The soundscape becomes the space – a constant shifting sound like sands, or echoes, or whispers, or handfulls of shells, infuses the experience of the show and leaves you feeling like you are still in that world. These sounds echo the mounds of black sand and shale which lie below the performance and in front of the shack which sets the scene.
Savage River is a claustrophobic narrative of place, with Jude (Peta Sergeant) arriving to unsettle the equillibrium of Kingsley (Ian Bliss) and his son Tiger (Travis Cardona) who live in Kingsley’s self-enforced isolation in their shack by the river. The triangle is a negotiation of sexual attraction, blackmail, lies, and loneliness, and all against the backdrop of this windblown, remote riverside. While the first half of the show is clever about its narrative progression, managing to keep us always on the right side of expectation, the second half becomes a little predictable, seeming to take the ‘easy’ option when it comes to plot choices, and not entirely living up to the promise of the first half.
As Tiger, Cardona is charmingly innocent (though not naieve or saccharine – just fresh and undefensive about the world, his world) and his earnest and honest characterisation is a delight. He might be anywhere between ten and eighteen – the script refuses to say – but he is settled all the time.
Sergeant is frustrating as Jude, though it is not always her fault. The character is required to spend the entire first half in a distinctly unattractive and rather unlikeable semi-intoxicated state, and it is hard to recover. While there are some very grounded and moving moments between Jude and Tiger in the second half, primarily Sergeant does too much, and makes Jude a character we struggle to relax with.
Filling out the trio, Bliss is somewhat uneven, mostly nailing the strong and rough yet introspective Kingsley, but sometimes not fully finding an ‘authenticity’ in the characterisation.
Some of these issues of characterisation might not be quite so distracting in a larger space – this venue just isn’t quite large enough to accommodate the style and scope of Evans’ interpretation. The characters are too close to the audience in the Backspace, and the restriction created by the physical space is not quite the right sense of constraint for the emotional limitations the characters are experiencing. A little more ‘distance’ (or an alteration to the ‘size’ of the performances) might have been welcome.