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Enlightenment - review

May 31, 2015 Theatre

Enlightenment, by Shelagh Stephenson

Auckland Theatre Company

Maidment Theatre


Be careful what you do in the foyer.

It’s a real double-take moment when you walk into the Maidment theatre and realise there is a huge live feed of the place you’ve just come from. As the crowd trickles in, eventually we see just one young woman on the screen, waiting, not knowing that she’s the star of her own Truman show.

It’s a bold move from director Andrew Foster. And also a frustrating one. This could be a great opener for another play, but here the connection is tenuous. Adam, Lia (Rachel Nash) and Nick’s (Stephen Lovatt) 20 year old son, has disappeared while backpacking overseas. But he was not picked up by any security footage. There is no public trace of him.

The choice is symptomatic of the play, written by British writer Shelagh Stephenson and localised for the ATC production, in which its various threads don’t quite gel together for the denouement. Foster’s security footage is one of many red herrings.

There is geopolitical uncertainty and fear of the Islam world. The horror is that Adam is the victim of a bombing in Jakarta. Lia’s anguish is she sent her innocent out into a world that the West has screwed up.

There’s a cerebral voiceover that discusses atoms in soothing Science speak. There’s a motif of patterns and chaos theory, represented by a contraption that Adam made which releases two tennis balls simultaneously, but their trajectories always diverge.

There’s a psychic, Joyce (Catherine Wilkin), whose preferred term is “sensitive”, whom Lia asks to try to connect with Adam.

There’s a go-getting documentary maker, Joanna (Anna Jullienne), who isn’t opposed to telling a few white lies in the pursuit of a story.

Then there’s a game-changing reunion which is not all that it seems.

Don’t be put off by ATC’s amateur hour trailer, this thriller is genuinely gripping as you race ahead to try and put all these pieces together.

The see-through steel frames, which make up Dan Williams’ set, look just like cast-offs from ATC’s Waterfront theatre project. They are moved into different configurations throughout until entirely removed. Matched with Brendan Albrey’s lighting design the aesthetic is cold and removed of feeling. Paul McLaney’s soundtrack, while generic, works quite subtly to get under the skin, though moves towards clashing Birdman territory as the drama intensifies. Tom Bogdanowicz’s audiovisual design is slickly film-like.

In fact, you could quite easily imagine this as a film. Throw in a chase of some description, some ambiguous flashbacks, cast Liam Neeson, and voila. What works for the stage though is the time Enlightenment spends with Lia and Nick as they deal with the gaping absence of their son. There is real substance to this relationship, and Stephenson gives depth when others might give clichés. Stephen Lovatt is dependable as always, and you can get lost just watching his physical choices, teetering on collapse. Rachel Nash is astonishing. Her plea that she doesn’t want her son “summed up” by the TV crew hits hard. She’s the big reason to see this show.

Catherine Wilkin is great too – sceptics can have a lot of fun with her. What does she say that she could reasonably have deduced, and what has no explanation? Despite Anna Jullienne’s efforts, her character’s subplot is the least engaging and most predictable. David Aston also appears as Gordon, Adam’s grandfather and a famous former Labour Minister, but his life is only lightly sketched.

Act One does move slowly, and we have to wait till its end to catch up with the plot points discussed in the play’s pre-publicity. Act Two then is wide open, and it is here that Jordan Mooney’s character becomes the focus, at some expense to our investment in Lia and Nick. I can’t say much about Mooney’s character, but I can say he has one of the hardest jobs of any of them, and pulls out a fascinating performance.

Some of the plot here relies on the other characters not asking the obvious questions as to how Mooney’s character could be involved in Adam’s disappearance, or interrogating parts of his backstory that he drops. The production also errs in not fully realising the sense of danger we should feel towards the end.

While the outcome is not quite as revelatory as it perhaps thinks it is, along the way Enlightenment will keep you thinking, speculating, and most importantly, caring.

Photo credit: Michael Smith


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