Begun in 2006 as a multi-hander called Nowheresville, Vivienne Walshe’s play, sensibly retitled This is Where We Live, premiered at Sydney’s Griffin in 2013 as a tersely poetic two-hander. This is the form in which it arrives in this co-production by the State Theatre Company of SA and HotHouse Theatre, touring regionally following a short Adelaide season in STCSA’s ‘State Ed’ slot for schools.Walshe’s play is reminiscent of last year’s offering, Phillip Kavanagh’s Jesikah, also a two-hander, in which, as in This is Where We Live, a fierce, troubled teenager with a liking for brightly coloured Docs struggles to carve out a sense of identity in an airtight world rife with bullying classmates, oppressive adults, and surging hormones.
Putting aside the very different registers — Kavanagh’s is busily naturalistic, Walshe’s is rhythmical and impressionistic — the key difference between the two plays is the social milieu. In Jesikah we’re in the heart of metropolitan, middle class suburbia, while This is Where We Live is set in the cultural and economic underclass of deepest rural Australia.
Chloe (Matilda Bailey), marked for outsider status by her dyslexia and ‘gammy leg’, is new to the nameless small town in which the play takes place. Her stepfather is a physically abusive drunk, her mother’s presence in her life distant but desperate. Chloe can barely read, and is singled out for attention by the schoolyard ‘princesses’ who are no doubt resentful of her intellectual sharpness and sexual allure.
She is attracted to ‘odd boy’ Chris (James Smith), a rusted-on local whose father teaches English and history at the town’s high school. Chris’s home life is, like Chloe’s, fractious and crushing — father pompous and embittered, mother an alcoholic, both clinging to some lost past of artistic ambition and elevated social status.
If Chloe’s defences against her fraught circumstances are her hard, indifferent exterior and knowing sexuality, Chris’s are an intense focus on his academic studies and, more fundamentally, a restless, yearning imagination infused with a love of poetry and literature. (To him, she is ‘Chloe of the underworld’ — a reference to the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, which was an inspiration for the play). In a telling exchange, Chris whispers a haiku he has composed for Chloe into her ear; she cries, but fights every teardrop.
Walshe’s characters are distinct, familiar and deeply sympathetic, and Bailey and Smith (significantly younger than the Griffin production’s Ava Torch and Yalin Ozucelik) give strong and skilful performances that match their complexity. Smith, in skinny jeans and oversized jumper, brings a stooped, embarrassed physicality and suite of nervous vocal tics to Chris that will be recognised by anybody who has been or known a teenager.
It is Bailey, however, who carries much of the weight of the play on her back. She does so with impressively tireless energy and insight, holding in both body and voice the well-defined imprints of multiple characters — her slurring, gravel-voiced stepfather, her teenage and adult tormentors alike — throughout the play.
Morag Cook’s set — a jagged, animal hide-like outline on which sits a section of concrete pipe broken off at one end where the corroded steel reinforcements jut out like gnarled fingers — provides a striking image of rural degradation. John Halpin’s movement-filled direction contrasts markedly with Griffin’s somewhat static staging that was based around four chairs, but this production doesn’t suffer for it. Chloe and Chris are, after all, characters in perpetual psychic and biochemical motion, their intense relationship a complex, roving pas de deux: passionate embraces, strategic withdrawals, furious kiss-offs.
This may sound exhausting but it is, in fact, only Walshe’s script itself that came close to wearying this critic. Sixty minutes is generally not considered a long time to spend in a theatre, but Walshe’s hour-long play demands much of its audience in filling in its many absences.
It is not, in this respect, unlike a radio play, in that dialogue, interior monologue, and even stage directions and sound effects (‘crunch, crunch, crunch’) are all generated by the actors in the same space. It’s a dense, though lyrical, fusion that places an unusual emphasis on language and its verbalisation while reducing the role of the purely visual or aural. It’s a mode, ultimately, that highlights the writer’s craft — and Walshe’s textual dexterity is at times dazzling — but distances and fatigues.
This is Where We Live is a political play because it is not simply about Chloe and Chris, but their social conditions too. As white Australians, they do not number among the country’s most severely disadvantaged, but their lives nevertheless reflect the shocking, unending disparities between country and city standards of living, and opportunities for the young.
Walshe, in the play’s denouement, draws attention to our complicity in this; it is a bold, disquieting challenge that underscores the human cost that Chloe and Chris represent of our continuing lack of social and economic investment in rural Australia.
Not that any of this will be uppermost in the minds of the play’s teenage audience members, who will surely find in it ample humour, drama, and reflections of their own experiences to keep them fully engaged and invested for the whole hour in the broken, longing lives of two of their own.