Seventeen years ago, 25-year-old Australian-born Van Tuong Nguyen was executed by the Singapore Government. He had been found guilty of drug trafficking, and his subsequent death sentence had captured major international attention and spurred on multiple calls for clemency. All appeals were rejected. But perhaps the most haunting part of his story came in the final hours before his death, when he was denied a final hug from his mother.
It was this denial of a last embrace that inspired Australian-British playwright Suzie Miller to write Caress/Ache in 2015. Readers will likely recognise Miller as the playwright behind Prima Facie, which was first staged at the Stables Theatre in Sydney before premiering in the West End in the hit National Theatre production starring Jodie Comer.
This 90-minute play, a Victorian premiere mounted by Silver String Productions, weaves together several different stories that all aim to explore the importance of touch, as well as themes of grief, loss, love, betrayal and sacrifice. There’s a surgeon who reels from the death of a patient (whose heart had just been beating in his hand) and a couple coming to grips with infidelity. Finally, there’s the story of a mother fighting for the right to hold her son one last time.
Caress/Ache is not as tightly written as Prima Facie. Miller, who was a member of the movement for clemency in Nguyen’s case, is ambitious in the scope of her play. Overall, the storylines are well-told and at least one is likely to resonate with each audience member in some way.
The links between those stories are often tenuous, however, and the play indulges in a fair amount of theatre tropes – the cheating writer, a screaming match about infidelity, a wife begging her increasingly distant husband for affection from across a stage.
In this production, it felt as if meandering moments were stretched out (yelled arguments between partners, one-sided phone calls etc), while the really intriguing moments could have been further explored.
There were, however, some stellar performances. Sorab Kaikobad as the surgeon, Mark, was a strong lead, whose arc tied most of the storylines together. Laura Knaggs covered two roles, phone sex worker Cate and betrayed partner Saskia. She delivered several memorable moments and demonstrated care with difficult or awkward subject matters.
One storyline in particular felt uniquely timely. In it a young Iranian woman (Delaram Ahmadi) tries to reconcile with her family’s denial of her heritage after moving to Australia, and longs to join the fight for freedom in her home country.
This play made its debut in 2015, but given the current wave of revolutionary protests that have swept Iran, the story of a young woman’s choice to go back to her homeland to fight hits harder. Ahmadi, who is Iranian herself, delivered a deeply moving final monologue.
The few technical issues on opening night of the production weren’t too glaring, excusing a couple of moments when loud music drowned out the performances on stage. For a show that is ultimately about intimacy, however, this production didn’t feature much physical touch, and the distance between characters was felt. The play said more about the importance of touch by keeping us longing for that closeness.
Overall, despite small issues, this production of Caress/Ache was a strong premiere for Miller’s home state, led by several compelling performances.
Caress/Ache by Suzie Miller
Silver String Productions
MC Showrooms, Melbourne
Director: Kate Shearman
Cast: Sorab Kaikobad, Fiona Crombie, Laura Knaggs, Taylor Fong, Delaram Ahmadi
Caress/Ache was performed from 22-26 November 2022.