October 01, 1996

Down at the End of Lonely Street

Daniel Keene
Red Shed Company

Reviewed by Murray Bramwell

The Red Shed Company continues its productive collaboration with Melbourne playwright Daniel Keene with one of their best productions in some time. Terminus, Keene’s newest work commissioned by the Shed, follows other company successes- All Souls, the two-handers Low and Silent Partner and SA Premier’s Award winner, Because You Are Mine.

Keene’s plays, though varied in subject matter, have distinctive tropes. Densely poetic, socially deterministic and infused with dread they appear to offer little solace. His characters are damaged by betrayal, by abuse, by civil war. They are losers, victims, predators
and tormenters. But throughout his work there remains a kind of prelapsarian recognition, a moral voice expressed in their disconnected dreams, confessions and yearnings – or spoken for them by the most marginal and afflicted among them.

Terminus has all these elements, but this time Keene has incorporated them into the brisk confines of the crime thriller. A teenage boy is travelling on the last train on a suburban line. A man approaches him and when the boy retreats, refusing to show him the bird he is carrying in a box on his knee, the man strangles him and takes the bird with him. It is a terrible, affectless act which then sets an unsettling expectation of arbitrary, random violence. The man, named John, moves about the city. He stays in a sleazy hotel, visits a whore, accosts and seduces the sister of the dead boy, and meets a vagrant who quotes cracked mysticism and talks of his conversations with angels.

Director Tim Maddock ,with designer Mary Moore, has transformed the Red Shed for a remarkable stage image. Through the wall on one side of the acting area is the facade of commuter train melting into a vanishing point and returning on stage right as a long narrow bar, a dive called the Terminus, where Johanna, the grieving sister, presides over a line of barflies each drowning in anomie. The figures, spotlit by designer Geoff Cobham in queasy blues and oranges, have the poignant melancholy of an Edward Hopper painting. The nighthawks in the diner recite their disembodied terrors through radio mikes while Johanna, in a crimson sweater and black bob, could be any of Hopper’s hotel or foyer women, erotic, voluptuous but endlessly disengaged and solitary.

It is a bold design, which like the text, risks pastiche and self-parody while eloquently expressing pathological levels of social isolation. Such conditions, once cogently described by Reisman and Goffman, are now disregarded as a mere byproduct of postmodernism. The psychotic, the homicidal, the alcoholic, the marks of weakness, marks of woe, have become, like hermits for Wordsworth, mere human decor in some bourgeois fantasy of mean streets, extras in a hyperreal film noir. But not to Daniel Keene. In Terminus not a sparrow falls, not a vagrant suffers that we don’t know about. Everyone is on lonely street – the desk clerk, the amnesiac hooker, the homicide cops, even in the morgue a worker tries to harass the grieving woman.

As John, the nondescript serial killer, Robert Morgan is eerily still as he prowls the landcape. He is an embodiment of death, invoking confidences, providing silent benediction. He is not a psychological profile, more a vice – or a mirror to the souls he encounters. Ulli Birve is compelling as Johanna, defeated by her brother’s death and unwittingly unburdening to his killer. As the clerk, Tom Healey spirals desperately into self pity while Roger Newcombe’s police sergeant resorts to alcohol and violent apostrophising despite the interventions of his carefully self-disciplined constable (Frank Roberts). The hooker, played by Sally Hildyard, is pathetically comic as she describes the theory of trepanation, and ghoulish as she and the boy (Jeremy Schwert) return to confront John for his crimes. Only the subway tramp, played by Gary Waddell, is transcendent. But when he announces that he is protected by angels the cops beat him to the ground.

Terminus is a night journey, a play of voices. Like the terrified faces listening at walls and cubicles in the paintings of George Tooker, the characters are unable to connect. Keene’s text, often over-written and over-ripe has echoes of Eliot and Blake but there are cadences distinctly the playwright’s own as well. Sometimes he oversteps into christian mysticism and extended arias of anguish and, like All Souls, this text could benefit from editing. Johanna’s speech in the church could be cut back, as could the tramp’s peroration, there are also repetitions in the bar scenes and those with John.

But overall, Maddock’s direction, the lighting and design, Andrew Copeland’s evocative string and piano music, the ritual stillness of the performances and Keene’s lucid writing have combined to make a new work of real distinction. The Red Shed Company needs to take this project further. Cut to ninety minutes without interval and played at the tightly controlled levels of opening night and Terminus could be something right out of the box.

The Adelaide Review, October 1996.

Coming Up in October

4-11 October. Knots. R.D. Laing the musical. Directed by Michael Hill, stylishly sung by Steve Rex Greig, Marlo Grocke, Michelle Twigden, Nic Tudini and Gina Zoia. Tandanya Theatre.

5 October. Tracy Chapman and her band. New Beginning. Festival Theatre.

8-12, 15-19 October. Junction Theatre presents Program One of Threesome. From Theatre Praxis- Web by Jodi Gallagher. From Vixen Wicca & Rose- Learning to Tango, written by Helen Vicqua, directed by P.J.Rose.

11 and 12 October. Marianne Faithfull sings the 20th century blues with Kurt and Bert and a dash of weltschmerz. The Space.

17-26 The Dark. The Rock’n’Circus returns with more that’s cruel and unusual. Playhouse.

29 October. The Sex Pistols. Never mind the bollocks feel the nostalgia. Entertainment Centre.

31 October. Judy Small. Her final tour, with guests Cris Williamson and Tret Fure. Royalty Theatre.

2 November. Fire on the Snow. Robert Falcon Scott according to Douglas Stewart’s verse drama. Directed for State Theatre’s Australian Playhouse by Michael Gow. Design by Robert Kemp. Playhouse.

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