Theatre review: World Problems, Southbank Theatre

A solo show that spans near and far, borne of personal and global events.
World Problems. Image is a woman in grey standing on a stage in front of the mouth of a tunnel, that looks as if it's lined in slate. There are boulders at her feet and we can see the silhouetted heads of the front row of the audience from behind.

The very title of this Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) play offers you a clue as to the contents. Written by Emma Mary Hall, it’s a one-woman act that stars Carly Sheppard ruminating on all that was, all that is and all that will or may come to pass.

Dann Barber’s set has her first crawling out of an all-grey tunnel-vortex – its ragged, slightly futuristic edges match her own patchwork slate-grey tunic. Most of the words she utters begins with the repetitive phrase, ‘I remember…’, to be followed by a hodgepodge of memories that jump from childhood to adolescence, to adulthood, to somewhere in the near and distant dystopian future.

But the timelines become messed up; there is no chronological order exacted in these reflections, which range from cute and flippant personal milestones to iconic, world-shattering happenings. Her first kiss, schoolyard cruelties, parents’ divorce, family pets, the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9/11, Princess Diana’s death, the arrival of the first black lesbian Prime Minister, having your head scanned at airports – all these random events are related in a matter-of-fact fashion that becomes increasingly freighted with talk of man-made and natural disasters. What’s real, what’s speculative or fictitious? We don’t know.

With a large teddy, an obsolete television set and a box big enough to crawl into, Sheppard roams around her domain, sharing intimate or big moments in the history of both her character’s life and that of a struggling planet. But the onslaught of endless, desultory recollections and fantastical imaginings and the constant ‘I remember…’ refrain becomes wearying and loses impact as the minutes tick by. You are barely left to consider the import or significance of a particular statement before, whoosh, the next comment is proffered.

The performance lasts an hour and the conceit does wear thin, given that, dramatically, nothing much happens. Despite Sheppard’s charismatic presence and the weight of her character’s wor(l)ds, it seems like a slender theatrical offering. With a bit of editing, World Problems could work easily as an audio presentation rather than a staged production.

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What the play does underline, however, is how very interconnected we are with one other. While we may be obsessing about our own minute domestic concerns, the world is heading towards a not-too rosy end point – and carrying us along with it.

World Problems by Emma Mary Hall
Director: Cassandra Fumi
Set and Costume Designer: Dann Barber
Lighting Designer: Harrie Hogan
Composer and Sound Designer: Rachel Lewindon
Movement Consultant: Amelia Jean O’Leary
Additional Dramaturgy: Kamarra Bell-Wykes
Actor: Carly Sheppard

World Problems will be performed until 22 May 2024.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy