September 25, 2018

Struggle for truth in a police state

Welcome the Bright World
by Stephen Sewell.
House of Sand in association with
State Theatre Company South Australia.
Queen’s Theatre, Adelaide.
September 21. Tickets: $22- $42. Bookings 131 246 or online
Duration 2 hours 25 minutes (including interval)
Until October 6.

Welcome the Bright World and welcome back Stephen Sewell. His turbulent, engrossing, digressive, disputative drama has been greatly missed. It is 36 years since Nimrod first staged their Welcome, and, while others of Sewell’s works, with their glorious unfurling titles, have occasionally resurfaced, this play, set in Germany in the early 80s, has not. Until now, when (under the umbrella of State Theatre Company) House of Sand, and director Charles Sanders, have produced this accomplished and commanding revival.

Like many of Sewell’s works the play is a mix of the personal, the political, the philosophical and the popular thriller. Max Lewin is a Jewish mathematician intent (in sometimes fractious collaboration with his colleague Sebastian) on unpicking the mysteries of particle physics and finding the elusive Quark of Truth. Germany in 1982 is ground zero for global instability- ignited by political extremes, domestic terrorist insurgencies, and the real fear of imminent nuclear war.

Max is recruited to assist with planning covert government surveillance, believing that his calculations have no ethical implication. Others think differently; the idealist Sebastian, for one, and also Max’s rebellious punk daughter Rebekah. As social connections become strained and alienated, relationships fray between wives and husbands, between friends and colleagues, and beliefs and convictions begin to falter.

Sanders and designer Karla Urizar have used the cavernous, unreconstructed Queen’s Theatre to good effect, assisted by Owen McCarthy’s grainy monochrome video projections and strategic lighting. Mario Spate has assembled an evocative sound design of oscillations, pulses, subliminal Kraftwerk-ish noodlings and other aural punctuations.

There are many strong performances. Sewell writes well for women and the dialogue between Anat and Fay, the wives of the scientists, is presented memorably by Jo Stone and Anna Cheney, as they reflect, not only on the deterioration of their marriages, but their lost trust in each other.

Georgia Stanley vividly captures the daughter Rebekah’s restless energy and navigates the cryptic role of Gabriele, Max’s mysterious confidante. As Heinitz and Dr Mencken, Max Garcia-Underwood and Patrick Frost are convincingly sinister secret state functionaries without turning into Bond villains.

As the erratic, naively free-spirited, intellectually curious Sebastian, Roman Vaculik provides essential contrast to Terence Crawford’s Max, who is retreating into abstraction, guilt and dissociation. Crawford’s animated, agitated performance is central to the production’s success, even as it risks histrionics and grand gesture – especially in the over-long, runaway Act 3.

Sewell demands this theatrical magnitude because the stakes are high. His plays bravely reach beyond their grasp, ungoverned by defensive ironies and cynicism. They also challenge and invigorate audiences, reminding us that bright worlds can still exist.

“Struggle for truth in a police state”, The Australian, September 25, 2018, p.14.

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