Theatre Review: Great performances fail to brighten this Blackrock (at Seymour Centre until 25th March)

There are some standout performances in White Box’s production of Blackrock, now playing at Sydney’s Seymour Centre, but they’re not enough to lift it to the heights this play deserves. At a time when violence against women remains high in our nation’s consciousness, we need plays like Nick Enright’s Blackrock to hit us where it hurts. This production, unfortunately, lacks a bit of punch.

Blackrock is actually an adaptation of Enright’s own earlier and shorter work, A Property of the Clan, which premiered in 1992. A few years later, the characters and plot returned in Blackrock, a full-length production commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company. Both plays focus on the fallout of a teenager’s beach birthday party, during which a girl is raped and murdered.

As the details of what occurred slowly seep out, the characters must all face up to their part in it. The play poses the too often ignored question of just who is responsible for violent crime committed against women. Is it the victim’s fault for being promiscuous or dressing provocatively? Is it the absence of a father figure that drives young men to behave recklessly? What about a culture that is built on the tradition of the boys’ club?

The boys’ club is certainly well represented in this piece, with all the young male roles cast well. Ricko is played superbly by Sam Delich. He is confident, cocky and careless in all the right ways. His vocals suit the Aussie larrikin style and he also manages to give the character a strong physical presence with well-executed gestures. Delich draws your eyes in every scene without overplaying the role.

Delich is so good he slightly upstages Guatier Pavlovic-Hobba as Jared, who takes the lion’s share of stage time. That said, his performance is sound and he almost gets under your skin. Alex Packard is convincing as ‘good boy’ Toby and has the teenage slouch down to a fine art.

Rounding out the posse, Joshua McElroy and Danny Ball bring great energy to their various parts, and are scarily believable as drunken louts.

Another standout is Zoe Carides, who as Jared’s mother, Diane, gives a measured, subtle performance. It is a style which is perhaps a little too understated for the stage and would play extremely well on camera, but her acting talent is evident, particularly in the latter parts of the show.

The remainder of the cast are good, but the pacing of the production means they are not given the chance to really explore the depths of their emotions.

Which brings us to one of the main issues I had with this production – it was too fast. Sure, an hour and 20 minutes run time without an interval is long enough for most, but the show felt like it was rushed. There was no time for pauses or internal reflection. Despite the deeply troubling circumstances in which the characters found themselves, they seemed to jump from topic to topic (and scene to scene) with barely a backwards glance. It made it difficult to connect with any of them at a deeper, more personal level.

The other reason this production doesn’t quite succeed is the staging – a combination of a difficult set and ineffective direction.

As the audience enters the theatre, the set is covered with a clear plastic sheet, reminiscent of the type thrown over furniture during renovations (or perhaps over artefacts left behind at a crime scene). The play begins with the actors joining together to remove the plastic, revealing a sand-covered stage and curving black rock face. At the rear of the stage, a rectangular wall of stage lights forms a transparent backdrop, used expertly by lighting designer Martin Kinnane. On either side of the action, along with the bare walls of the theatre, are a motley collection of plastic lawn chairs and milk crates.

Hudson’s stage design certainly creates a coastal atmosphere, but it poses problems for the scenes which are not set on the beach. Aside from the fact the actors have to ignore the sandy, slippery floor and climb clumsily over the rock during scenes which are clearly not occurring outside, insufficient consideration seems to have been given to the placement of the actors in these moments. For most of the one and a quarter hours of action, the performers face off against each other at the front of the stage, metres apart. They pace around without real purpose and enter the stage based on where they left it in the previous scene, rather than from the direction that makes most sense scenically.

The staging also led to the occurrence of one of my pet peeves in the theatre: actors who don’t plant their feet. There is nothing more distracting to me than an actor who shuffles from side to side in a tiny version of the box step while they deliver their lines. It dissipates the power of both performer and text. Sadly, the open stage lent itself to this behaviour and even some of the most practised cast members found themselves committing this (in my opinion) cardinal theatrical sin.

What results from this directional choice is a lack of intensity. It is difficult to relate to the characters when they positioned so far apart. Perhaps the lack of physical closeness was a conscious choice by director Kim Hardwick, to draw attention to the acts of unwanted contact that occur throughout the piece. But the effect actually ends up disconnecting the actors from each other and the audience.

Despite being written over 20 years ago, Blackrock is still an incredibly current theatrical work. The currency factor has also been helped along in this production with some carefully placed up-to-date references and some easily recognisable handheld technology. My only problem with this approach is that it needs to be consistent – Diane’s reference to wanting to hire a video and stay in for the night was glaringly outdated. But it was a minor hiccup in an otherwise smart production choice.

What really makes this piece relevant for modern audiences, however, is that it reflects a culture in which violence against women occurs far too frequently. When I first came across the characters of Blackrock as a teenager studying theatre at university I found myself reflecting deeply on my own behaviours and the dangers of drunken college parties. It is frightening to think we have changed so little in 20-something years.

As Patricia Cornelius pointed out during this year’s Sydney Festival: we need art, and particularly theatre, to force us to examine these kinds of social issues. Blackrock is a play that can certainly do that, but this production falls a little short of eliciting the emotional response necessary to drive behavioural change.

Blackrock is showing at the Reginald Theatre at the Seymour Centre until 25th March. For tickets, head ghere.

The reviewer attended opening night, Saturday 11th March.

Photo credit Danielle Lyonne