Image supplied by La Mama.
Sixteen-year-old Mel (Madeleine Ryan), kneels by the body of a man, a sexual act gone awry, the deafening sound of time ticking amplifies both her fate-in-the-balance and announces time itself is at the forefront of performance in emerging playwright Didem Caia’s Vile.
Mel conveys a restlessness borne of abandonment of place and disintegration of her world – her relationship with high-school boyfriend, affable, reliable, soon-to-be city lawyer, Jamie/James (Darcy Kent); her desertion by her hair-trigger yet loving father (Todd Levi); and the ambivalence of her brittle-minded mother, Linda (judiciously performed by Amanda McKay).
Vile unfolds through dual time frames separated by ten years. Beginning December 1999, the play interweaves six months prior and, cross cutting to July 2009 onwards, six months a decade after the event. The usually nascent narrative structure is lifted to the level of story, shaping scenes and set design – a screen projecting date and time marks scene changes. The contrary movement of the month-by-month progression propels the narrative, where the audience refers back, and forward, to events from a place that collapses present and past.
The story’s world centers on outer-suburban Kiln Street, evoked in an effective minimal design – suspended tree branches and corrugated iron panels – where the selective illumination of space suggests both open and furtive places of communion. The production effectively sheds light on forgotten, unwanted spaces: the outer-suburban quagmire of violence; the secret parts of self; the unwanted aspects of the mind.
Caia’s script is unflinching in its chilling descriptions of small-town violence. Indeed the many forms violence takes within the play can suggest a comfortable distance of the narrative from the events it depicts. It leaves no stone unturned in its pursuit of theatrical certitude. The outer-suburban town is rife with unpredictable violence, infanticide and sexual betrayal, often with an eye to narrative resolve and overarching metaphor (infanticide/abortion, slaughter of hanging dogs/erotic asphyxiation) rather than substantiating the affect it reaches toward.
The non-diegetic stories – the most chilling – re-told by Mel in an almost disembodied narration, suggest a propulsion toward the ‘dark matter’ she voices within the play: an articulation otherwise unconvincing were it not for the story’s field of reference. Mel’s final year high school paper on ‘dark matter’ suggests that an affinity with that which is, at best, obliquely seen, hidden from consciousness and inferred by the traces it leaves.
But there is a freshness to this production. Mel describes hearing her mother’s orgasm: ‘that sound; like you’ve been punched really hard in the ribs and you loose your breath for a second then you start laughing.’ Later, October 2009, she muses on her mother’s ‘replacement’ of her father: ‘I’ll be in bed with someone… and I get these flashes like I’m going to be slapped or punched in the ribs and I don’t let that happen.’ It is the inferred violence in this play that resonates. Most particularly, the question around women, or girls (Mel is at the age of consent) wanting sexual violence. Puppy (Anthony West), the transient who introduces Mel to erotic asphyxiation, musters that it’s desired by ‘adventurous women’.
Vile is a theatrical study in trauma; bodily trauma, psychical trauma, and the deep emotional blow that renders a subject ‘stuck’. Interspersing popular music in its film-like landscape, it plays on Stealers Wheel’s ‘Stuck in the Middle With You’. The inability of emotional response to trauma –stuckness – is abstracted in the confusion between waiting and the inability to move; the mother’s failure seek out her daughter, Mel’s elusive attachment to place and time. It is through the mother that the central concern of the play is articulated: ‘what are you doing here Mel?’ for it is in the character’s confusion, the collapse of past and present, and the overreaching effect of trauma, that the play circulates.
Vile, and indeed Caia’s script is, overall, well judged. It is not a chronic re-visiting of the traumatic event, but, through the composite temporal frames, an unraveling of what shapes the event. Nor does it stray into the well-worn path of audience complicity with violence. Largely, as a result of narrative structure and the drawn out character development, we never reduce Melanie to a monster, nor victimize her, instead musing on the dynamics of familial/abusive relationships, parental failure, and absence that forms the emotional constellation of compulsive acts.
Vile eschews the moniker of feminist – although it directly tackles subjects – women – or girls – wanting sexual violence, domestic violence and implications of teenage sex – that are often, erroneously, viewed as the sole preserve of a feminist theatre. But these are female dramatists – playwright Didem Caia and director Elizabeth Millington – whose heightened awareness complicates gender relationships for a willing audience.Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Playwright: Didem Caia
Director/Production Designer: Elizabeth Millington
Dramaturge: Hanni Rayson
Cast: Madeleine Ryan, Darcy Kent, Amanda McKay, Anthony West, Todd Levi
La Mama Courthouse
16 – 27 July