September 25, 2017

Unsettling monologue reflects siege mentality

by Emily Steel
Steel and Brown in association with State Theatre Company and Adelaide Festival Centre inSPACE program
Plant 1, Bowden
September 22.
Tickets: $22- $37. Bookings 131 246 or online.
Duration 80 minutes. No interval.
Until October 14.

“D’you want some tea ? Come and have some tea. Make yourself at home.“ With this greeting, we are invited down the rabbit hole into Emily Steel’s incrementally disconcerting monologue about writing a play. As we sip cups of tea and sit on old sofas and kitchen chairs, Steel takes us into her confidence.

She has come from London with her husband who has taken a job in Adelaide. They have a unit in a seaside suburb. She is a writer and is working on a play about population explosion called Rabbits. “It was a Metaphor. Capital M. Not a country but a house. And not rabbits but people. And the rabbits themselves were a metaphor…So clever ! So worthy ! So timely !” But the play does not come.

Steel has taken us through a looking glass of meta-dramas. There is a gathering tension as she describes homesickness. London is far away and familiar patterns and connections have been lost. Australia is bright, cheerful, socially unfathomable and the cupboard is full of redbacks. Her unnamed husband is thriving with his job, while she battles isolation, writer’s block, then pregnancy. She is going to give birth to a stateless child whom she nicknames Dingo.

In the cavernous space of Plant 1, the former Clipsal factory at Bowden, director Daisy Brown and designer Wendy Todd have memorably created a context for the play which captures the sense of siege and agoraphobic anxiety that is the experience of Steel’s persona. The performance area is a tiny semi-circle of parlour chairs while, out in the empty expanse of poles and concrete, is the increasingly menacing larger world. The original score from Mario Spate pulses, thrums and explodes with its own uneasy portents.

In the distance is a large, brightly-lit mobile demountable room. In it, two figures in black smocks with large white rabbit heads lounge about. Sometimes they move closer to the action, lurking in the shadows like silent sinister clowns.

Emily Steel’s script skilfully and disturbingly escalates from closely observed domestic motherhood drollery to existential panic. Neighbours are stereotyped – Nasty Bitch, the Muslims, the Dwarf – as our unreliable narrator tips into suspicion, xenophobia, maternal paranoia and credible fear. “This isn’t the story,“ she protests, “This isn’t the story I meant to tell you.“

Steel’s excellent performance is disarming and funny, it is also bluntly candid, hostile, even unlikeable. Rabbits is an uncomfortable play and that is its quiet ambition. While we sip our tea, we glimpse what it might be like to be a stranger in a strange land.

“Unsettling monologue reflects siege mentality”, The Australian, September 27, 2017, p.14.

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