The Motion of Light in Water review (Theatre Works, Melbourne)

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Local company Elbow Room have always kept one eye on the past and one eye on the future, as we know from their 2012 Fringe Festival double-bill where they offered both an homage to British sci-fi television classics and a retelling of the Book of Genesis. Now they bring together their passion for speculative fiction and history in a single play, a work combining a biographical sketch of the American writer Samuel Delany and an adaptation of his breakout Nebula Award-winning galactic epic Babel 17. It’s an ambitious project covering a vast amount of material, and another proof that Elbow Room are still the country’s best advocates for a theatre of ideas and imagination.

Inspired by Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water, the play starts with Delany and the poet Marilyn Hacker, both barely 20, on a bus from New York to Michigan. In 1960, Michigan is one of only three states where, at that young age, the black Delany and the white Hacker can legally wed. In fact, the situation is more complex – or multiplex, as Delany would say. The couple are best friends, but not necessarily lovers.  Delany will later describe himself as a gay man, while Hacker will identify as a lesbian. Nevertheless, after what Delany describes as a “sexual experiment”, Hacker is pregnant.

Sexuality and experimentation are at the core of Delany’s work. His imagined universes seethe with desire, as a positive, overflowing, vital flux, the one great organising principle of life. All his fictions are, at bottom, speculative experiments in desire.

So, from a bus-station in Michigan, cut to the twenty-second century, a universe of silver spandex and spaceships, invading aliens and disembodied consciousness. Sexual athletes navigate the galaxy via precision threesomes and a weaponised language threatens to wipe out humanity. This is Babel 17: the sixties sexual revolution meets descriptive linguistics, all with a hyperspace twist.

Writer and director Marcel Dorney has a remarkable gift for synthesis. He manages to give a good account of Delany’s enduring obsessions – desire as creation, moral relativism, the power of language to change the world – while still offering naturalistic impressions of 1960s New York, as seen through the eyes of a gay science fiction writer.

Ray Chong Nee is all brightness and sensitivity as Samuel “Chip” Delany. At times his caricature verges on saintliness, but he stands out as the only performer with the presence to really fill the vast Theatre Works hall.

The set – something like a giant shower recess – is a bit too cold and sterile for this collision of interstellar sex and New York City apartment living. At least Andre Vanderwert’s animated projections add some movement and colour to an otherwise static scene, while Kris Chainey’s lighting is appropriately lurid.

Jacinta Yelland sparkles as Babel 17′s acrobatic space captain, but isn’t asked to show much more than enthusiasm and wonderment. Tom Dent is also intermittently convincing as a drifter who comes to share Sam and Marilyn’s New York apartment in an apparently peaceful ménage à trois.

Laura Maitland as Marilyn seems relatively subdued. Although Elbow Room insists that The Motion of Light in Water is a story about both Marilyn and Chip, the poet and her poetry seem relegated to the background, as commentary on the stargazer’s life and works. Whereas we really get inside Delany’s imagination and inspiration, Hacker’s own poetry seems to hang unexamined to one side.

Yes, Delany is black and gay, and has had to struggle with prejudice enough. But he is also a writer of science fiction, and that involves a whole other kind of prejudice: that the literary value of most science fiction, even the best science fiction, is doubtful. The ideas in Babel 17 are fascinating, and the politics refreshing even today, but I don’t believe it’s especially good literature. Even Delany’s best work, the profound riddle of Dhalgren – his masterpiece, if anything is – has the whiff of pulp escapism about it.

This prejudice is one Delany’s has been fighting all his career, as a good many of his critical essays testify. But for Elbow Room science fiction should be above arguments about literary bona fides. Like pornography, another genre that Delany champions, science fiction is able to disorientate and disturb in spite of its aesthetic limitations – perhaps because of them. As Susan Sontag argues, the sensations and ideas which good genre fiction stimulates have a kind of rawness or purity which more literary works lack, increasing our awareness of the unexplored limits of body and mind, sensation and thought.

Elbow Room and their collaborators, including Zoe Rouse (costumes) and Pete Goodwin (sound), show much ingenuity in bringing together so many ideas and images and moods. It’s a worthy production which does ample justice to the optimism of Delany’s worldview, the vitality of his imagination, and the achievement of his art.

[box]The Motion of Light in Water is at Theatre Works, Melbourne until 27 July. Image by Lachlan Woods: from left –Paul Blenheim as Ron, Laura Maitland as Mollya, Tom Dent as Calli.[/box]

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