The State Theatre Company of SA’s annual education slot used to be filled with old plays that were deemed useful for school-aged students to know about: The Zoo Story, The Dumb Waiter, those sorts of things. The past few years, however, have seen a change of focus to new works that reflect the lives of young Australians as they are today. And why not? The kids will find Albee and Pinter in due course; their own lives won’t wait.
Gorgon, by Adelaide actor-turned-playwright Elena Carapetis, feels as urgently contemporary as any previous offering in this mould. It has much in common with last year’s This is Where We Live, sharing that play’s roots in Greek mythology – there Orpheus and Eurydice, here the monstrous gorgons that were said to guard the entrance to the underworld – and teenaged protagonists set adrift by hormones, boredom, and enervating social circumstances.
There are other similarities too: James Smith, as the wayward but clandestinely bookish Lee, closely reprises his role from the earlier play, and Kathryn Sproul’s set design resembles Morag Cook’s, displaying – this time in a suburban rather than rural setting – the same jaggedness and decrepitude, cracks in the plasterboard and broken walls showing their steel bones.
There is, though, a different kind of tragedy at the heart of Gorgon: a terrible, instantaneous car crash, as against the slow burn of This is Where We Live’s social deprivations.
Maz (Chiara Gabrielli) is killed, leaving behind best mate Lee and twin sister Lola (also Gabrielli). Unable to process his grief, Lee retreats into his head and his books – he speaks, he tells Lola at one point, only to Centrelink and the pizza guy – and Lola takes it upon herself to draw Lee out of his funk. This goes about as well as you’d expect, and herein lies the fulcrum of the play’s tension: Lee’s struggle to not turn to stone in a society that insists on the repression of male emotions other than, in Carapetis’ words, ‘pride, anger and rage’.
All over in 65 minutes, Gorgon flashes past like a muscle car, Nescha Jelk’s direction intensifying the text’s snarling economy through rapid-fire projection (Chris Petridis) and sustained, pulsating soundscape (Will Spartalis) that combine in music video-like bursts of light and noise.
Carapetis’ ear for the teenage vernacular, and feeling for the mores of the Greek-Australian community, familiar to audiences of her debut play The Good Son, are striking. What the performances lacked in precision on opening night – Gabrielli, especially, seemed physically unfocussed and vocally under-supported next to the more experienced Smith – was made up for with the energy generated by the meeting of Jelk’s extroverted direction and Carapetis’ vigorous but always empathetic script.
Which is not to say the play could not do with some more work. While the first half is tight as a drum, it becomes clear that in it Carapetis sets up too much that can’t be comfortably resolved in such a short space of time. It may simply be a question of pacing, but I doubt it: the psychological trajectories of Lee and Lola are, I suspect, aimed too high to ever achieve a smooth landing in an hour-long play.
The conclusion, as a result, feels hurried and implausible, Lee’s emotional emancipation coming off as trite rather than poignant. It would be a shame if a play that never patronises its young audience were to do so by assuming their inability to sit still for ninety minutes.
Nevertheless, Gorgon is, for the most part, a play that rings true, and Carapetis’ light touch approach to mental health issues – grief, depression, and anxiety disorders among them – will resonate within an increasingly destigmatised national debate. So thank goodness it’s funny too.