Dramatic Collapse [by Jess Holly Bates]
It is a dizzy experience, on the steep rake of the Herald seating block. It always takes a moment to re-adjust. From my high angle I can see a single man on a couch, on a stage, and his tale will be no less giddy than my perch. He is earnestly polar fleeced and stumbling through an introduction. This is Daniel (Emmet Skilton) – our hero for the night. He is an anxious and bumbling intellectual, who begins with the problem of beginning, and eventually utters that well-worn phrase “it starts with a dream.”
Between Two Waves is a studied investigation of Daniel’s psyche – a climatologist whose charming suite of flaws (where indecision meet interpersonal incompetence) stem from a man suffering the full weight of environmental collapse. Daniel seems the only one who understands the true climate disaster in which we are living. The priorities of his antagonists: stressed insurance managers, media darlings and even his sassy love interest Fiona seem to be completely dis-ordered to Daniel, in his increasingly medicated and anxious struggle to make them understand.
Writer Ian Meadows insists Between Two Waves is “not a climate change play”, yet the tone of the program is vehemently political. In the words of sponsor and fitness mogul Phillip Mills – “we need to make a change,” so this begs the question: will be inclined to do so, after seeing this piece of theatre? The projects’ drive seems to come solely from the impassioned vision of Leanne Frisbie, so adamantly affected by the show when she saw it in Sydney that she convinced both Peter Feeney to direct and the playwright to adapt the text to be set in Aotearoa.
Equally, the stage is populated by passionate characters – Emmett Skilton holds the audience captive in Daniel’s world of heart-felt neuroses, both professionally and romantically. Shara Connolly is fierce and funny as the defensive Fiona, and together the pair charge the space with sparkling energy. Feeney is both director and actor, providing a grounding performance as senior scientist Jimmy. He provides the firm, moral mast against which Daniel’s uncertain choices can flap. Frisbie is not only the producer, but also plays the unravelling Grenelle, an insurance case-manager trapped in Daniel’s home by a flash flooding incident. The ironies of this unhappy coincidence are lost neither on Daniel, nor the audience.
Overall, the performances by the cast are strident in a play weighed in words, rather than action, but Meadows makes difficult work for his female performers, by ostensibly writing a woman that is more concerned with being perceived as a ‘slut’ who cannot be introduced to Daniel’s parents than by environmental crisis. Only our men – Daniel and Jimmy – can understand the painful gravity of a world falling apart. The gendered jokes about “7-year old tampons,” “vagina M & M’s” and “real man’s beer” fall short, feeling for the most part outdated. Both Grenelle and Fiona seem written to functionally serve Daniel’s character arc, visually articulated best when Daniel sits on the couch, flanked by two standing, shouting women – creating the perfect portrait of a man harangued.
Meadows openly declares his point of influence – he has a crush on T. S. Eliot. One cannot blame him. We hear reference to Eliot more times than I am entirely comfortable with, but the comparison is clear – Daniel is paralysed in the manner of J. Alfred Prufrock, full of “decisions and revisions that a minute will reverse.” Both are helpless to take action in the universe they occupy. Eliot, we learn, has had formal influence, too – “like that poem where you get to the end and you find yourself back at the beginning.” This is the return to Daniel’s dystopian dream monologue, an almost-poetic form which adds little to the general frame, but which Skilton does good work to naturalise.
Whether the work is propelling an audience into ‘action’ is a moot point. The story of the beleaguered scientist, frustrated by a world of corporate politics, media manipulation and the blind will to procreate is not new. Between the Waves strikes closest to leaving a fresh mark when Daniel must put his politics where his unborn child is. This, to me, is the critical point of the script – the point at which environmental realism and individual human desire collide, and this leaves the most visceral talking point of the piece. Jimmy asks Daniel “how [he is] going to look [his] kids in the eye?” and the question for Daniel remains – why have children at all, if you can’t.
However, just as the play hits this point of critical mass, it begins to lose its way. The director seems unable to provide one visual metaphor for Daniel’s journey, offering in its place a series of endings – a smokey mist from curtain stage left; a dramatic release of water overhead; an attempted suicide; an AV projection of a foetus, but none of these coherently close the story in a satisfying way.
Though the show is only gently articulate on it’s politics, the performances thrust human necessity and domestic apocalypse powerfully into focus; and in this light, it is a story to which everyone can relate.
Between Two Waves is presented by Passion Productions and Auckland Live and plays at The Herald Theatre until 15 August. Details see Auckland Live.