Kindness and Yours the Face (Theatre Works, Melbourne)

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Theatre Works in St Kilda is devoting the next three weeks to a new festival of Australian writing called ‘Flight’, kicking off with a very fine double bill: Bridget Mackey’s Kindness and Fleur Kilpatrick’s Yours the Face.

Kindness is a darkly whimsical piece about loneliness and the workplace. It comes off almost as a light comedy, and yet I think there’s also something quite disturbing here. Some horror — perhaps the fear of death — seems to lurk behind the facade and between the scenes.

The setting is the foyer of a modern-looking administrative centre. Through this clean, bright space, with chairs, coffee table and a fishbowl terrarium, we follow three office workers, each one desperate in his or her own quiet way, as they variously bump and rebound, never quite able to force a true connection.

There’s the woman who supervises the accounts team, smart but unfulfilled by her work, uncertain what she should be doing instead, whether forensic science or driving trucks. There’s a nodding young man, not very bright, not very good at his job, a bit paranoid, rude, but with a redeeming sort of boyish innocence. And there’s the mail-room temp, a young woman who has a crush on the innocent dolt, but with an awkward way of showing it.

And then there’s a fourth, the mystery woman. One day, an elderly woman installs herself in the foyer. At first upset, the others soon come to find her presence soothing. She compliments them and she jokes with them and she advises them. But most of all she listens. She establishes herself as a human centre to their corporate world. They rediscover among themselves a sense of community, even if they’re all still a bit crackbrained.

It’s a play of many short scenes, composed mostly of abrupt non sequiturs and half finished thoughts, emphasising the characters’ inability or unwillingness to communicate. A conversation about jewellery becomes a conversation about pirates, then supermarkets, then napping, then swimming pools, then soup. And while all the talking does yield a few memorable images — gutters transformed into orchestra pits — Bridget Mackey seems more interested in the moments of misunderstanding and silence, or in the lack of meaningful connection, than in the conversations themselves.

The tone is comic but highly unsettled. There’s a slippage effect. Time seems to slow, then jump, then stop altogether. This could be a year or a day. Sound designer Andrew Dalziell fills the space with low, metallic groans, as though the machine of life were winding down. The movement of the play’s small plot is suggested only by a subtle shift of stresses and groupings. There are many dark hints about why the old woman appears, but nothing conclusive. She asks for help, but seems to invite violence. Undoubtedly she is longing for death, but a death that is also a kindness.

And the theme of death — or at least of mortality — is clear throughout. It’s powerfully suggested, for instance, in Yvette Turnball’s simple but effective stage design: between scenes the rough-textured grey slabs at the back of the stage glow menacingly, lit from below, as if they were the walls of a crematorium.

The play could hardly have been better acted than it was by Emily Tomlins as the discontented team leader, by Rachel Perks as the grinning, bright-eyed temp who hopes one day to make her fortune selling jewellery online and by Tom Heath as the sulky clerk.

Fleur Kilpatrick’s Yours the Face is a different beast entirely. Where Kindness is grounded in refusals and hesitations and miscommunication, Yours the Face is all yes, yes, yes: a decorative romance, heavy with lyrical metaphors and masses of incidental detail.

It’s billed as a duet for solo voice: a nineteen-year-old American supermodel and an up-and-coming Australian photographer both performed by Roderick Cairns (above). The two meet in London. He taunts and teases from behind the camera, trying to provoke something magnificent. He succeeds beyond all expectation. In her face — this one face — he finds that the Goddess yet abides. And he is deep in love.

She is less enamoured of him. But she doesn’t obstruct his passion, allowing herself to be swept along, at least for a couple of days.

The romance of the work is not in this briefly realised coupling — which is in some ways rather sordid. The real romance of the play is rather in its treatment of photography. On the night before the two lovers are due to fly out of London on separate planes, the photographer takes one last picture. It’s the perfect picture. It’s a charm to keep back beauty, beauty, beauty from vanishing away. Here the vanity of both photographer and model is consummated in the sentimental belief that a picture can keep the work of time at bay. Yes, she abides, even as the mortal woman –like a snowflake — slips away.

The picture itself is touchingly described, right down to the photographer’s own reflection, caught in her eye. This picture –or the scene in which the picture is taken — is really the living heart of the play. Everything is animated by it. Through this photograph the play reveals itself: “she’s gone … she doesn’t exist any more … but I caught it … I held onto her, with just my hands and some glass and some light”.

Most of the play is written as a first person description delivered directly to the audience. And throughout, the writing is often very beautiful — particularly when it is at its plainest, in bare descriptions of actions and objects. The description of the couple’s visit to the museum, for example, stands out for the deceptively simple way it establishes the themes objectification and possession. At other times, though, Kilpatrick drifts into a florid sort of mood writing –tolerable, but not engaging.

It’s a fantastic performance by Roderick Cairns. He has done this piece before and seems to relish Kilpatrick’s conspicuous sensuality. Indeed, with Cairns it is the body that we notice first, not the face. He struts and shimmies; twists and turns; sticks out his chest and contorts his spine. It is almost as if he is trying to smash together the two bodies in his own. It’s a strange – somehow mutant – but nonetheless compelling exhibition.

Kindness and Yours the Face are at Theatre Works, Melbourne, until August 9

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