October 21, 2005

Narratives Entwined

Murray Bramwell

Checklist For an Armed Robber
By Vanessa Bates
Waterside, 11 Nile St, Port Adelaide.
October 19. Tickets $12- $23. Bookings (08) 8447 6211
Until November 5, 2005

It is almost three years to the day since Chechen rebels stormed the Dubrovka Theatre in Moscow during a performance of the popular musical Nord-Ost. The siege lasted three days and resulted in the deaths of fifty rebels and 117 hostages – the latter, for the most part, as the result of a mysterious nerve gas used by Russian authorities in a disastrous attempt at rescue. Drawing on these events, Checklist for an Armed Robber began as a writing exercise for the Blueprints Writers Assembly, has been adapted for ABC Radio and is now a captivating stage production for Vitalstatistix.

Playwright Vanessa Bates has interwoven two news items – the Nord-Ost incident and an account of a botched hold-up in a Newcastle bookshop. Both took place in the same weekend, both involved an older woman acting as an intermediary with a desperate young man. One event ended very badly, the other is defused with bamboozlingly persistent kindness and the theft of a book on the mysteries of tantric love.

Director Maude Davey and a capable quartet of actors have turned Bates’ purl-and-plain double narrative into an absorbing theatrical experience. Much is due to designer Cath Cantlon’s bold use of the cavernous stage at Waterside. With its imposing proscenium, faded red curtain and peeling paint, the space has a seedy grandeur that suits the desperation of the hostage takers as they surround the confined audience space on scaffolding walkways draped with swathes of black PVC. Sue Grey-Gardner’s lighting directs horizontal sprays of disconcerting harsh light while Catherine Oates’s soundscape is ominously subliminal.

Maud Davey, however, is careful to avoid the cliché of a captive audience
hijacked by hoodlums. There is an artful absence of action movie FX. No loud
bangs and histrionic posturing, rather a melancholy quiet and the deaths of
several hostages in awful silence. It is the small human particulars which are the
focus of Vanessa Bates’s lucid, admirably restrained text and the actors are
memorable in their precision – Netta Yaschin, as the Russian journalist called
from LA to mediate, and as the hostage humiliated to tears at being forced to
defecate in the orchestra pit, Astrid Pill as the bookshop worker whose heart is
greater than her fear. Nathan O’Keefe, by underplaying the gunman, makes his
extremity all the more fathomable, and Roman Vaculik’s Chechin commander –
as it is the job of theatre to do – brings a human voice to the abstractions of a
political endgame.

“Narratives entwined” The Australian, October 21, 2005, p.16.

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