Flight Paths theatre review: a drama of big ideas (Riverside, Parramatta)

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Flight Paths, by Sydney playwright Julian Larnach, had its world premiere at the National Theatre of Parramatta on March 17. It is both original and ambitious. The play has a complex formal structure, with two interlocking stories, one set in Kenya and the other at Oxford University, and characters scattered, by birth and adoption, across continents. It deftly juxtaposes the futility of paternalistic approaches to foreign aid and the discriminatory practices of elite educational institutions.

These themes are primarily realised through the characters of two young women, Emily, an Anglo-Australian who is volunteering to help build a school in Nairobi, and Luisa, adopted from a Kenyan orphanage by Australian parents, who has won an academic scholarship to Oxford. As both women embark on their overseas adventures, they come to appreciate the complexity of both belonging and of reaching out to help others, the dangers of poverty porn and of tokenism and the immense challenges of constructing a viable sense of self and purpose in an increasingly globalised world marked by enduring structures of inequality. Airlie Dodds convincingly portrays Emily, breathing life and immense sensitivity into a difficult, brittle character. Ebony Vagulans is wonderful as Luisa, achieving a consistent sense of grounded reality in a complex role.

The play’s checkerboard narrative unfolds briskly; a scene in Kenya is followed by a scene in Oxford, the two elements predictably layered until the seemingly disparate plots merge together in the concluding revelation. At times, the intricate patterning of these interwoven narrative strands seems a little forced, as though the characters were being constrained by the formal demands of the play’s structure. Overall, this complexity works well, effectively conveying the drama’s big ideas about racially-based inequalities as well as the effort of the current generation of young men and women to grasp at purpose in the midst of the commoditising impulses of an instagram world.

The satirical thrust of Flight Paths is perhaps most successfully achieved in two scenes. The first is an ‘Empire Ball’, a social event for Oxford students, organised by British Indian character Anika, played with gradually increasing believability by Monica Kumar. Anika is a deeply ambitious young woman who hopes to make her mark in Labour politics. Dressed as a British naval officer from the era of Empire’s greatest dominion, she dances with Luisa who references a different version of Empire, wittily posing as a Stormtrooper. As they drunkenly converse with Max, a patronising white male masquerading as Winston Churchill, the audience begins to sense the possibility that the empire may really be poised to strike back.

The second scene takes place on a hilltop overlooking the neighbourhood of Kibera in Nairobi. From this vantage point, Emily finally comes to see the volunteer work being undertaken by the NGO she works for as an elaborate charade, staged to make affluent outsiders, both Anglo and Chinese, feel good about themselves while enhancing their CVs. Her guide is local man, Adhama, played with immense dignity by Richie Morris.

Throughout the play, images of flight connect the plights of the central characters. Adhama is a plane spotter, able to recognise the type of aircraft overhead simply by listening. Luisa is a budding ornithologist, obsessed by the spiraling patterns of starling murmuration. As it turns out, these characters are connected by more than their individual attempts to imagine a world beyond their own horizons by imaginatively investing in the journeys taken by winged creatures in the sky above us all.

Initially commissioned by the Australian Theatre of Young People and then further developed by Playwriting Australia, Flight Paths soars. Occasionally a stilted interaction or a tendency towards the declamatory sent the performance momentarily off course. But it quickly reengaged with its bold course. I was drawn to the sheer scale of this drama’s big ideas. Anthea Williams’ direction tackled these ideas as well as the play’s structural formalism with admirable verve. The elegant and minimalist set by Jeremy Allen, the evocative sound design by Michael Toisuta and the freshness of the lighting design by Verity Hampson are notable.

Flight Paths is playing at the Riverside Theatres complex in Parramatta until March 24. (Image by Noni Carroll)

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