The Eisteddfod theatre review (Metro Arts, Brisbane)

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Abelone and Gerture, orphaned in a freak gardening accident, have taken to staying indoors. The disembodied voice of the playwright, Lally Katz (The Rabbits), invites us into their world: the enclosed suburban space that they expand with make-believe. Abelone is obsessed with winning an imagined Eisteddfod, but needs Gerture to commit to be Lady Macbeth to his Macbeth if he’s to win the ultimate prize: a one-way ticket to Moscow.

It’s a time-honoured tradition to orphan fictional young’uns to enable growth through misadventure. This particular work filters the worrisome siblings of Ian McEwans’ The Cement Garden or Yorgos Lanthimos’s Dogtooth through the Australian gothic absurdism of Bad Boy Bubby.

Abelone and Gerture compulsively use role-play to approach intense themes of isolation, trauma and unchecked desire as they play out memories of their parents and neighbours with childlike honesty and dark humour.

But they’re not wholly alone. They are sometimes visited by the guiding voice of Katz, who – while not quite parenting the pair – does take responsibility for them. These regular fourth-wall breaks serve to remind us that the basement-like black box Abelone and Gerture inhabit is really a stage after all, with the characters not confined by the temporal or spatial restrictions of reality.

This early Katz play premiered in Melbourne in 2003 and went on to win the Excellence in Direction and Producer’s Choice awards at the 2004 New York International Fringe Festival. Katz is a prolific and original writer, and this early work certainly heralded bold experiments to come.

In a scene that nails the mundane sadness of suburban exile, Abelone and Gerture act out the story of a young girl who hanged herself on the monkey bars at a local park.

Heidi Manché directs this strange, lively staging with a light touch that underlines the uncanniness of Abelone and Gerture’s pretend play, particularly as it steers into darker territory. Sometimes Gerture retreats into a dissociative fantasyland in which she’s a schoolteacher; at other times, she has Abelone play her troubled boyfriend, Ian.

Madison Kennedy-Tucker and Matthew James French bristle with weird chemistry as Gerture and Abelone, whose interactions are tinged with menacing body language (choreographed by Neridah Waters). Their delivery – particularly Abalone’s hypermasculine Macbeth (“Fuck thain – king!) sometimes obfuscates the play’s nuance – but nonetheless we feel the horror of suburbia and its gendered expectations broiling under The Eisteddfod on a low heat. “What a big job men have,” Gerture tells a lustful Abelone, “having to stick their dicks in the entire world.”

In a scene that nails the mundane sadness of suburban exile, Abelone and Gerture act out the story of a young girl who hanged herself on the monkey bars at a local park out of sheer fatigue. “That’s why I’d kill myself,” says Gerture, before vanishing again into her inner world: “just because I was tired. Devastation is exhausting.”

Chelsea Jewell’s production design grounds The Eisteddfod, locking us with Abelone and Gerture in their basement cloister with just a ladder and a wire bedframe. David Walter’s lighting plays in dynamic ways over a back wall made of stacked sheets of blank paper, which bring to mind piles of abandoned paperwork – obsolete to two people ostensibly off the grid of reality. Amy Holley’s subtle, eerie sound design nails the understated framing the dialogue requires.

But what does it all amount to? There’s a lot here: grief, love, isolation, growing up; anxieties surrounding loss and desire translate into avoidance of the real world. The director’s notes mention the effect of smartphones on our ability to engage with our surroundings and peers. But, at its heart, The Eisteddfod is confronting in that it magnifies questions of nurture versus nature: Gerture and Abelone can only play out the relationships that have been modelled to them, so what do they make of themselves (and each other) when everything else has been cut away?

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The Eisteddfod plays at Metro Arts until 24 March 

Image by Samara Jamel

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