How did a precociously young British woman become one of the most performed contemporary playwrights in the English language theatre?
Almost exclusively through merit, it must be said, so you can’t blame the Sydney Theatre Company for serving up a third Lucy Kirkwood play in as many years, following Chimerica in 2017 and The Children last year.
It’s not just that they’re compelling dramas – and both Chimerica and Children certainly were, masterful stage puzzles of wit and wonder – but that they do that thing that theatre subscribers really love: explore big ideas through ordinary people.
The same goes for the aptly named Mosquitoes, the third of an unlikely Kirkwood trilogy that proves the least successful. Like the tiny insect capable of calamity, Mosquitoes again explores how individuals can change the course of history. And how the burden of that changes them.
Or at least, that’s the idea of a drama set oceans away on the border of France and Switzerland, with one of the world’s most marvellous and mysterious machines, the Large Hadron Collider, looming in the background. The machine throws particles together at great speed in an attempt to unlock some of the mysteries of the universe. Kirkwood collides people to test their molecular density.
If that sounds a little laboured, well it is a bit. But for better or worse, the experiment breaks down, the allegory smothered in at times unconvincing melodrama. And the magical realism, that was such a feature of Kirkwood’s two earlier works, is more artless here, weighing down an already arduous night of theatre at more than 2.5 hours.
That may be more to do with this production than the play, which comes with middling to strong reviews for its National Theatre debut starring newly minted Oscar winner Olivia Colman. For director Jessica Arthur, a Sydney Theatre Company resident who successfully helmed the one-woman Lethal Indifference, it’s perhaps the largest canvas of her career. But ideas – hers and the play’s – get lost in the void.
The saga of this divided family is not without emotional tug. But I don’t think the play is the propulsive lifeforce we might have expected from Lucy Kirkwood.
The design from Elizabeth Gadsby, spare and inelegant, emphasises the isolation of the characters but is a black hole for intimacy. There is nary sense of time and place, save for the laboratory which is decked out almost comically like Dr Who episodes from the black and white era.
The sense of inscrutability extends to the characters, or at least its lead, Alice, stiffly played by Jacqueline McKenzie. She’s the composed, imperious scientist lacking any bandwidth for a screw-up pregnant sister (Jenny, played by Mandy McElhinney) and incurious teenage son (Luke, Charles Wu). Indeed, it’s hard to see how she’s related to either. Presumably Colman, “devastatingly good” on stage in London, made more of the role than McKenzie does here.
McElhinney has the much more interesting part and is an outsized presence on stage. Not that she doesn’t modulate Jenny’s drunkenness, dimness and coarseness with enough nuance to make her seem real. It’s an altogether winning performance. But the odd-couple sibling terrain does feel familiar.
Wu always feels too old for the role as the scarred, scared teenage tearaway. Naikita Waldron is a better fit as school chum Natalie, a love interest turned particularly 21st century tormenter. Jason Chong is a ghostly presence as Luke’s father and a cosmic narrator of sorts, while Annie Byron (the sisters’ mum Karen) and Louis Seguier (Alice’s boyfriend Henri) make the most of smaller roles.
The saga of this divided family is not without emotional tug. But I don’t think the play is the propulsive lifeforce we might have expected from Kirkwood, at least in Arthur’s untethered adaptation.
Image: Jacqueline McKenzie and Mandy McElhinney in STC’s Mosquitoes, 2019. Photo by Daniel Boud
Mosquitoes plays the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House until May 18