Dead Centre/Sea Wall (Red Stitch, Melbourne)

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Director Julian Meyrick and Red Stitch have put together a programme of two monologues that complement and comment on each other. One, Sea Wall, by Simon Stephens — who wrote the very successful National Theatre adaptation of Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time  and whose Birdland was recently at MTC — was first produced seven years ago and is here performed by Ben Prendergast. The other, Dead Centre, by Tom Holloway, was commissioned by Red Stitch in response to Stephens’s play and is acted by Rosie Lockhart.
Sea Wall tells the story of a family tragedy, an accident that is nobody’s fault and could have happened to anyone; Dead Centre, which comes first in the evening, tells a story about what happened afterwards, so that we travel into the back story for the new work.
In Dead Centre a middle-class Englishwoman, Helen (Lockhart’s accent pitch-perfect) tells us about her escape to Australia: how one slothful, disorganised day she was watching television and saw an ad for Foster’s Lager and before she knew it she had decided to make a new life for herself on the other side of the world. Part of that new life involved working in a kindergarten; another featured a tour of Uluru, inadvertently, as it turns out, in the company of a group of new Chinese women migrants.
All the time Helen is telling us this story, with its self-deprecating asides and sharp remarks about her adopted new country, we are aware that something is being held back. What exactly has made her leave her husband, and why, of all the reactions he might have had to being abandoned, was he so “understanding”?
Anyone familiar with the earlier play will know the answer, but this knowledge can hardly be assumed. When we hear Alex’s monologue we grasp why Helen might spend so much time on the couch not doing much; we also see why the two men in the Foster’s ad might have made some kind of subconscious appeal. We also see why her father went missing and was later found near Dover, looking for God. In Australia, Helen tells us, there are things that people refuse to acknowledge, things to do with the past: we come to see that her pointing this out is a way for her not to acknowledge something about her own past.
Holloway’s sequel to Sea Wall has responded to Stephens’s work only after listening intently to it: whereas water and the sea are the motifs of Sea Wall, the desert provides the imagery for Dead Centre. What they have in common is stone: cliffs and the sea wall, Uluru; life at its most unyielding and the aridity of grief. (“I have a hole inside me,” Alex tells us; he has a dead centre.)
Together the two monologues are no more than 70 minutes long, and Meyrick’s direction keeps things simple. During Helen’s story Alex makes a couple of fleeting, unemphasised appearances on stage, and in turn she appears during his. The careful, unobtrusive lighting (Matthew Adey) minimal use of digital projection (Katie Cavanagh) and sound design (Ian Moorhead) supports the writing and performances while always allowing them to take precedence.
Both actors seemed to me to be faultless. Lockhart embodies a woman whose bright, humourously scatty persona doesn’t quite keep madness at bay; at the same time, as Stephens’s writing requires, Prendergast is more nakedly emotional, yet never self-indulgent. In both cases it is the kind of acting where the technique is invisible and absolutely at the service of the characters it summons up. Afterwards it occurs to you the risk that has been taken: it is theatre that demands a strong emotion from the audience and any false note on the part of the writers, the actors or the director would make the whole thing collapse.
[box]Dead Centre/Sea Wall is at Red Stitch until 15 August. Image of Rosie Lockhart and Ben Prendergast by Jodie Hutchinson[/box]

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