Anaconda theatre review (Bondi Pavilion Theatre, Sydney)

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As the axe chops through the rear of the set as Anaconda opens I thought we were might be in for some gutsy work, but I was sadly disappointed. Just like the gaping hole wrought by that axe, so too were there holes in this production.
Anaconda is based on real (if almost unimaginable) events that took place at prestigious Trinity Grammar in 2000. In the dorms of the boarding school, a boy was tortured and repeatedly raped by fellow students. He was sodomised with a wooden dildo another boy carved on in woodwork class and nicknamed Anaconda.
After the abuse was discovered, the boy moved from school to school, eventually getting into trouble with police. Some years later, the case was settled out of court, in an all-out effort, presumably, to protect the good name of one of Sydney’s most exclusive secondary colleges.
Playwright and director Sarah Doyle has used these eye-watering facts as a jumping-off point into fiction. She sets the play in the present, 21 years after the abuse. Anaconda doesn’t recapitulate the events, but looks at the outcomes and the impact on the victim. It also questions culpability and accountability. The play asks whether a witness should be held to account for doing nothing to prevent the actions of bullies.
Phil Walker, played by Simon Lyndon, is the victim of fifty-three instances of abuse. One night he takes revenge on one of his perpetrators, exacting numerically precise poetic justice by fatally stabbing him fifty-three times, then calling police and turning himself in.
This is the scene-setter. We’re then introduced to  Matty Buttiker, convincingly played by Damian de Montemas, the barrister defending Walker pro bono. It’s no accident. Nor an act of generosity. Rather, one of hoped-for redemption as we learn Buttiker was a witness to the violence against his client all those years ago, but did nothing.
The premise is edgy and compelling and I was drawn into the action, anxious to know how the story would unfold. But it pulls too many punches and is not helped by peripheral affectations clamouring for attention. The set, for example, is as towering, metallic triangles: a way too obvious metaphor for power and domination in this alpha-male world.
Lyndon does a fine job as Walker despite some inaudibility problems. He plays the disturbed victim without tipping over into exaggeration and with some directorial tweaking might have pulled off the complex feelings he faces at the end of the play. Leeanna Walsman, as Buttiker’s uptight real estate agent and wife to Buttiker, attempts to bring more depth to her conceited character, but doesn’t achieve anything real and affecting. Martin Broome, as Tove, also lacked the emotion stakes necessary to carry us deeper.
Doyle’s direction loses its hold on the play’s trajectory with awkward staging and clunky cross-fades across too many scenes. The play has density, yet no real weight. Perhaps if the writer had handed the reins over to an outside eye, the beating heart of this play could be revealed.
But the play feels strangled, never realising its potential to starkly present the repercussions of abuse perpetrated with a pack mentality This darkest aspect of the psychology of the mob, after all, has given us more than serial individual abuse. It has given us holocausts.
Perhaps the greatest thing in favour of this play is its name, which not only makes reference to the instrument aforementioned, but one of the largest snakes in the world. The anaconda crushes its prey by squeezing it, before eating it whole. A pity, then, the crushing, lifelong effects of violence and trauma on human beings isn’t shown here let alone felt. Anacoda hints at menace and terror, but never really gets inside the belly of the beast.

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