REVIEW: Sunflowers (Pumphouse Theatre)

Review by Erin O'Flaherty

[Leaning Towards the Sun]

The world has changed irrevocably since the last time I reviewed a theatre show. The spaced-out chairs in the PumpHouse’s Coal Bunker – an already intimate area – are a testament to that. The apocalyptic setting of this romantic two-hander feels perfectly timed, and its tone reflects the surreality of our current moment, in which our small lives continue to unfold against the backdrop of something huge and destructive. As soon as this premise – that a life-destroying meteor is hurtling its way towards earth – is introduced, I wonder about the significance and the point of theatre in post-Covid society.

In Sunflowers, a new work written and directed by Sierra Southam, childhood friends Abilene (Eva Greensill) and Micah (Logan R. Brown) reunite in the final hours before the end of the world. They head up to the top of a water tower to watch the meteor descend but quickly become stuck there – stuck with each other, with their past, and with their imminent mortality. Though there’s nothing particularly new about this concept, Southam offers us a generally well-written bittersweet romance. Abilene and Micah discuss who they were as well as who they’ve become, play out fantasies of marriage and make peace with their past.

Sunflowers form a central motif – featuring in one of Abilene and Micah’s idyllic memories as well as being compared to the meteor. Though this motif could’ve been more strongly incorporated, particularly visually, sunflowers successfully become a symbol of hope and life as well as of death, creating a nuanced vision of the end of the world. Our characters oscillate between different reactions to their looming death, and the meaning of sunflowers changes accordingly. Sometimes they take a nihilistic view, aligning the once pleasurable memory of sunflowers with the symbol of their destruction. Other times they try to remain optimistic, citing how sunflowers always seek out the light. And finally they search for escapism through nostalgia, living fully for a while in the pastoral space of the remembered sunflower field. 

The Coal Bunker works well for this piece, with its rock-face backdrop and intimate space transporting us to the water tower, dim and enclosed and rustic.

However, while there are some genuinely touching moments in the show (particularly from Logan R. Brown), I found myself never quite immersed in it. The script set the stakes high and I would’ve loved some bolder directorial and acting choices to match it – a ratcheting up of the tension, more strained pauses and emotional beats observed. This would’ve allowed me to become more invested and created a greater emotional payoff at the end. The script could do with some development (which is not necessarily a criticism – this is the case for most new works, and it’s in an excellent place to be taken further) to allow for stronger ebbs and flows, stronger character moments. Nevertheless, it offers a beautiful, dream-like love story – a sort of apocalyptic wish fulfillment – that touches on the failure of institutions and explores how the average human responds to terrifying, larger-than-life circumstances.

This is what makes it an extremely relevant work and why I think it deserves to be explored further. Like the water tower, it offers us a small sanctuary away from everything else where we can take the time to reflect on what’s happened, what’s about to happen, and how we might react to it.

So, what does Sunflowers have to say? How should we react in these unprecedented times? After their oscillation through different mental states, what the characters seem to settle on is acceptance. That life is fleeting but no less beautiful for it. That we should find happiness where we can, no matter how small, and try to forgive the people who’ve hurt us. They realise the point of it all was just that they managed to find each other, to be two people in a room together, connecting. This, I am reminded, is the magic of theatre and why theatre is necessary – now more than ever. It is the beauty and resilience of people being in a room together. And I think, for now, that is enough.

Sunflowers plays at the Coal Bunker at The Pumphouse Theatre 30 September to 4 October, 2020. \

SEE ALSO: Theatreview.org.nz review by Leigh Sykes

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