Declan Greene’s brilliant two-hander about high school social exclusion, bullying and mental illness returns in a new season at Theatre Works in the inner Melbourne suburb of St Kilda. The power of the writing is brought to life by two excellent actors and mesmerising production, lighting and sound design that animates the rich psychological landscapes of the two characters.
I previously saw Moth when it was first presented at the Malthouse in Melbourne upstairs in the Tower Theatre in 2010 – I still remember how deeply it affected me. I left feeling overwhelmingly grateful that my high school years had missed the birth of social media by a few years.
The play is just as powerful as ever. Greene’s writing remains fresh, the story told through the recollections, dreams and visions of the two main characters: Sebastian (Adam Noviello), a teenage social misfit whose only friend is the broody goth-girl Wiccan, Claryssa (Lucy Ansell). The structure of the play at once sets up the dramatic tension – the opening scene hinting that all is not what it seems, the overlapping and sometimes contradictory stories of the two friends a reminder that our narrators may not be so reliable.
That all-important dramatic principle of showing not telling keeps the tension high in the build-up to the final scene of the play, as Claryssa and Sebastian embody multiple characters throughout to bring the story to life – from each other’s mothers to annoying teachers and bullying students. The scene on the oval – the horrific event that sets in motion a domino effect that leads to the play’s conclusion – is just jaw-dropping.
Director Briony Dunn is to be congratulated for a truly astonishing production of a play of this calibre. With raw material this excellent, for it to work, and be great, it requires two incredible actors. Tick and tick. For it to be at this level – where the clever use of the relatively large and cavernous Theatre Works stage is broken up into smaller spaces through intricate, complex lighting states and a brilliant set design, to elevate or highlight each significant moment between the two leads – it’s something quite remarkable. But then to ratchet it up by bringing to life the internal, rapturous delusions and visions of a disturbed, mentally ill teenager, so that we feel and understand Sebastian’s world on a visceral level – it is theatre at its heart-stopping best.
My only teeny niggle – I felt Noviello could have pushed their characterisation of Sebastian even further. The characters of Sebastian and Claryssa are people on the fringes – picked on because their peers see them as odd. For Claryssa – she wears her hatred of people in her death stare and palpable aggression. For Sebastian, it’s something else – a mental illness that presents in his lack of personal hygiene and self-care (another character says he ‘stinks of BO’), his inappropriate laughter and, later, his delusions that cross over into increasingly strange behaviour.
Early on in the play I found myself thinking: why are these other kids picking on this guy, he just seems like any normal kid? But really – as a two-hander carried beautifully by two powerful and embodied performances from two highly-skilled actors completely connected with each other in each moment until the final, breath-taking end – it is a very minor niggle.
Put this in the ‘do not miss’ category.
Moth by Declan Greene
Theatre Works, Melbourne
Director: Briony Dunn
Costume design: Betty Auhl
Lighting design: Niklas Pajanti
Sound design: Darrin Verhagen
Production design: Justin Gardam, Niklas Pajanti and Briony Dunn
Stage Manager: Natasha Marich
Cast: Lucy Ansell and Adam Noviello
Moth will be performed until 3 June 2023.