Variations or Exit Music is not just another love story. It is a bold and distinctive exploration of love and relationships as told through the intertwined experiences of four queer men.
As the title suggests, the play follows variations on the ending of relationships. The audience is invited into the intimate world of Justin, played by Mathew Connell, as he recalls falling in love and all the myriad of feelings that arise and engulf him.
The story, or stories, are constructed in non-traditional storytelling forms that incorporate poetics and queerness. The traditional narrative of the love story is continually interrupted by multiple perspectives.
The play is an autobiographical work by director, writer and performance artist Justin Nott. According to Nott, most of the script evolved from notes written late at night, listening to music or on public transport. Indeed, much of the drama itself includes snippets of memory, half-truths, dreams, words uttered and unsaid.
It is difficult to represent the ubiquitous topics of love and relationships in any kind of original form, but the play mostly manages to succeed. The script is honest, poetic, even if at times a bit over the top. There is a great rhythm in the script. There is a strong emotional relating to the characters as they repeat the familiar scripts we repeat to lovers, and to ourselves, as we negotiate this thing called love.
They show us the passion, the insanity, the way we abandon ourselves, and how we manage to pick ourselves up from the ruins when love leaves. All the feelings are there – desire, lust, adoration, confusion, anger, sadness, despair, ecstasy. The scene describing Justin’s first love and subsequent first heartbreak is a moment of particularly beautiful poetics.
The stage is set up as a small bedroom in the London apartment Justin shares with his lover Sam (played by Yuchen Wang). It feels cramped, almost stifling at times, especially when all four men are in the room. Ashtray, wine bottle, clothes, headphones are strewn across the floor. The lighting, occasionally overstated, functions to change scenes, induce time lapses, or emphasise dramatic pauses.
Connell gives a relentlessly enthralling performance as Justin. He is tender, vulnerable, beautiful, relatable, imperfect and contradictory. All four actors relay an admirable vulnerability as they open themselves to love despite the enormous emotional risk. The performances reflect the skilled work of dramaturg Bridget Mackey and intimacy coach Isabella Vadiveloo.
Lachlan Martin as Jason, Justin’s first love, performs a fabulous, lip-synced rendition of ‘Maybe This Time’ from Cabaret. Of course, music is a key ingredient of the show. The musical scenes are few but music often functions as a way for Justin to make sense of his experiences, expressing for him what he cannot express himself. A subtle soundtrack by Sound Designer Edwin Cheah works to emphasise the emotional world of the characters and build tension.
The audience learns, through a voiceover from Nick (played by Joss McClelland), how Justin listens to a trusted album of songs when he goes through the pain of heartbreak. When his own words fail, the music and lyrics carry him: the strings become his pallbearers’. The audience cannot hear the music Justin listens to on his headphones, just a record skipping sound, like a broken record, as Justin plays out a well-known script of self-directed loathing after a breakup.
A standout scene is when Justin resorts to begging his partner Sam to not end the relationship. Cornell’s acting here is raw and heart-wrenching. When he begs Sam, ‘I’ll do anything’, the desperation is palpable. The fast tempo of the script and building music adds to the tense emotional landscape.
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Moments of existential crisis resound with questions: Why do we do this? What does it mean? Why do we love when we know it brings us such pain that we question the whole point of the existence of the universe?
The play addresses such moments and attempts to give an answer– because love. Love is the only answer to the problems of love. We must open ourselves to it, despite what we know, despite the pain, because it is all there is.
Variations or Exit Music by Justin Nott
La Mama Theatre, Melbourne
Director: Justin Nott
Set and Costume Design: Eloise Kent
Sound Design: Edwin Cheah
Musical Composition: Danni A. Esposito
Creative Producer: Nicole La Bianca
Dramaturge: Bridget Mackey
Lighting Design: Clare Springett
Stage Manage:r Tom Backhaus
Intimacy Coordinator: Isabella Vadiveloo
Actors: Matthew Connell, Lachlan Martin, Yuchen Wang & Joss McClelland
Variations or Exit Music will be performed until 25 September 2022.