[Togs, Togs, Drama]
Red Speedo is Benjamin Henson’s mainbill directorial debut with Auckland Theatre Company after a series of successful endeavours across New Zealand. Henson as made a name for himself as a director with shows such as AUSA’s As You Like It, Last Tapes Company’s Valerie, and his most recent Auckland work The Effect as part of Q Theatre’s Matchbox season.
Red Speedo takes us into the life of Ray (Ryan Carter), a competitive swimmer by trade (and not much else), as he is gearing up to swim for the Olympic qualifying rounds after smashing through national records. Circling Ray are three more characters: his brother Peter (Wesley Dowdell), who also serves as his lawyer and representative; his longstanding coach (Scott Wills); and his ex-girlfriend/ex-sport’s therapist Lydia (Chelsie Preston Crayford). Playwright Lucas Hnath’s characters are undeniably human; if you find yourself looking for the hero of this story, you’ll be disappointed. As in life, Hnath’s complex characters navigate the morality (or lack thereof) of the play, demonstrating how easily the best intention can lead to hellish consequences.
The story spans over two days, before and after the qualifying race for the Olympics. Ray has been training for this his entire life, forgoing friends, a decent education and a paying career to be the best of the best. The play begins abruptly and launches into a sharp monologue from Peter as he attempts to navigate the revelation that drugs have been found in the club’s fridge – a dilemma that could threaten Ray’s chances at reaching the top. After Peter convinces the coach to keep quiet and flush the evidence, Ray reveals to his brother that the drugs were in fact his, a nice little left over from the relationship his brother didn’t approve of and ultimately sabotaged. There’s no denying a lot of action is talked about on stage that happens off, and despite this being a general theatre writing 101 no-no, it works due to Hnath’s ability to reveal and conceal information in way that keeps us on our toes.
The stand out performances of the night come from Carter and Dowdell. The two men dance together in a tangle of manipulation and greed that culminates in a physical fight on stage. The fight itself is impressively choreographed to begin as a life-threatening assault and descends into a pathetic tit for tat spat, with each man covered in pool water and vomit, reduced to little boys flailing at each other to get in the last hit; an embodiment of the regression of their relationship from business partners and swindlers to lost little boys who stand to lose everything they’ve worked for.
Henson uses his canvas well and creates striking imagery from the get go, particularly evident from the blocking of the first scene. His use of levels establishes strong power dynamics without falling into textbook direction. Design plays a strong role in this production, as it has before in many of Henson’s other works. Henson has a knack for detail and atmosphere that is prevalent as soon as you walk into the main theatre space. The stage is obscured by a screen that has a lap timer ticking away in the corner. Once the stage is revealed we are presented with dripping red walls that lend themselves more to the realms of hell than that of an Olympic swimming pool, but the effect is that of an imposing sense of doom and risk. The entire play is set pool side. While Henson opted not to have an actual pool on stage, this is effectively implied by the raised set, towels and use of projected reflections of the water. The choice to elevate the main action in an attempt to avoid the depth of a traditional proscenium stage work is an interesting choice that brings the action forward. However, it would be interesting to see how perception of the action alters when seated closer to the stage, where the audience has to crane their neck to see the action. I would imagine scenes that leave the actors teetering on the edge of the stage would be a lot more suspenseful.
Red Speedo is a modern day psychological thriller that would usually be a good fit for a more intimate theatre, but with Henson’s direction and design from John Parker, this production manages to capture the tension which infects the Waterfront Theatre’s auditorium with ease. To go on further would be to unravel the plot and take away from the suspense, so instead, I recommend you catch it while you still can.
Red Speedo plays at the ASB Waterfront Theatre until 15 Nov