REVIEW: Nothing (Auckland Fringe)

Review by Nathan Joe

Sound and Fury

These pieces are not set. The words should not change but the pieces can be performed in any order, by any number of people, in any space, at any time. They can be cut and pasted in any way you would like. 

Have fun. 

These are the ‘Rules’ used in the original production

By Barrel Organ Theatre.

In this production the actors performed the monologues in an improvised order and cut for each performance. It happened in a variety of locations, from theatrical spaces to deserted car parks. It was completely different for every performance. 

Performance Notes, Nothing

Having read Lulu Rackza’s 2014 Edinburgh Fringe hit Nothing a while back I was interested to see how its New Zealand premiere would shape up. The playwright and the company that originally produced it, Barrel Organ, suggest a semi-improvised element to the performance. The text itself, made up of a series of monologues, can be edited to run in any order as the director pleases, potentially changing every night. The original intention with Barrel Organ was to make the play feel alive and spontaneous. It has all the makings of an acting exercise rather than a fully formed narrative. 

Yet it’s an acting exercise with discernable power in its writing. Elevated by Rackza’s sharp ear for contemporary dialogue, honing in on the way people speak, plagued by doubt and uncertainty. It’s a dark, disturbing text that offers little hope or salvation. If Auckland Fringe gave out an award for most trigger warnings, Nothing would be a likely frontrunner with themes and warnings of depression, murder, sexual abuse and a sprinkling of ablelist language aplenty. 

Without knowing the context of this production, it’s impossible to know what lengths these improvisations director Jordan Dickson and his company have committed to. And while this wider dramaturgical framework isn’t necessarily known to the audience – or apparent unless you know the history of the show –  it does inform the inherent shapelessness of the text. 

While the extent Dickson leans into these devices is unknown, he does embrace the site-specific potential of the work, using a different venue for the show every night. Opening night, as it happened, was at Samoa House. The other choice he makes is to cast 4 actors (Aidan O’Malley, Georgie Salmon, Greta van den Brink, Jacob Master) for the 8 monologues, having them double up characters. 

It’s an admirable decision but – despite the character change signified through discrete costume changes – the shift feels too understated, and the performers don’t offer distinct enough transformations to signify this shift. It takes a while to catch on, even knowing the text. 

Despite this, the cast deliver focussed performances for each monologue. The way they inhabit and hold the space, in particular, is impressive. O’Malley as the Film Lover and Georgie Salmon as the Vandal find nuances and moments of surprise in their characters limited journeys. 

The result is a series of fragmentary monologues designed to be interrupted by one another, on the cusp of overlapping but never quite touching. Ideal for a generation that is increasingly more fragmented themselves – individuals completely isolated and atomised. The script sings best when the monologues contrast starkly with one another, creating unintentional ironies. It’s the closest thing the characters get to connection. Pretty bleak stuff, but it’s levied with a dark sense of humour that includes wry observations and amusingly banal segues. 

Reading the text, I was impressed by the play’s potential for unpredictability. Here, through Dickson’s naturalistic directorial choices, it feels more precise and thought out. The result is something well studied, elegantly blocked, but numbing. It’s no doubt sharp writing and intelligent directing, but it feels oddly exposed when presented so starkly. Pessimism without playfulness. Like looking at a cadaver sliced open rather than a living, breathing human being. 

As a piece of contemporary theatre, in a style we don’t often see in the local landscape anymore, it definitely deserves attention. It’s easy to forget how uncommon a fully developed text is during Fringe sometimes. Dickson and his actors also display an undeniable commitment to their craft, tackling a risky and challenging script with an assuring confidence. They’re practitioners worth keeping an eye on. 

The history of the play suggests that it rewards repeated viewings. I’m not entirely sure, leaving the play, I feel that is true. But I am curious enough to find out. For a play supposedly about such important ideas, it never really investigates them. We’re shown the debris of modern civilisation, the dark underbelly of humanity, and left to stew in it. It has the honest quality of In-Yer-Face theatre, though delivered more elegantly. But like those edgy British plays of the 90s, it feels oddly dated in its handling of these issues. The characters are simply depressed, angry people with nothing meaningful to say. A potent production of a play that leaves you feeling, well… Nothing.

Nothing plays at secret locations as part of the Auckland Fringe 27 February to 1 March, 2020. 

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