“There’s a tipping point when it becomes impossible to reverse.”
As the original quote continues, it laments how “it’s too late” but it is this particular sentence – uttered by the brilliant, if highly anxious and socially inept climatologist, Daniel – that sums up the poignancy of Between Two Waves. The narrative is not of our distress at that which we cannot change but the all-consuming realisation that, as T.S Eliot eloquently summarised, all time is unredeemable.
Powerful, precise and delivered with well-placed humour in an otherwise nihilist world, it’s luckily quite easy to forget that this play could have been a ‘climate change’ production – all didactics and querulous sceptics. Instead, Ian Meadows surprises his audience with a compelling examination of human frailty. Despite the advancements of the 21st century, the play highlights that the deeper anxieties of our psyches continue to plague our sense of mortality – perhaps even more so than ever before.
The drama is centred upon Daniel (Emmett Skilton), a traumatised and fractured young man whose world is flooded. He has lost years of research, the skylight has fallen apart leaving an awkward dagger-like shard of glass within his reach and even his expensive coffee table is damaged. But it’s not just his material world that has begun to suffer from water logging; Daniel is equally submerged in surreal sequences of a world that is not shy of choking him. The irony is obvious: this is the man who studied water. Upon the advice of his mentor Jimmy (actor-director Peter Feeney), Daniel takes up a post as a policy analyst at the Ministry of the Environment to make a difference at a macro-level.
But the public sector is not what our anti-hero expects and his optimism soon wanes. Challenges accost him on all sides and he spirals between resisting the opinions of his father, the attacks of the cynics and learning to communicate in simple English about the apocalypse that he sees so clearly. And of course, it’s not that simple.
He falls in love, clumsily, or at any rate develops a personal engagement strategy with the vivacious Fiona (Shara Connolly), an aspiring photographer whose career is temporarily on hold. She too works at the Ministry but unlike Daniel she’s a secretary’s assistant, toting lattes, answering phones with faux smiles and organising media training during her lunch hour. Their tumultuous relationship is leveraged through a series of transactions that reveal deeply vulnerable moments, exposing the limits of human connection, and equally the frustration at the lack thereof. Their tragi-comic romance, both heartfelt and authentic, is juxtaposed with Daniel’s somewhat erratic dependency on the insurance adjuster, Grenelle (Leanne Frisbie), who has a multitude of her own problems with a former husband and a wayward teenage daughter.
As the extremely gifted cast come together the various narratives converge, not always successfully but there is still much to applaud in this work that seeks to shift the ground beneath our feet.
Emmett Skilton as the lead is a standout. He not only runs a highly emotional marathon but he seems to get a second wind in the last 30 minutes and sprints toward the end. His character, Daniel, seems to have been witness to as much darkness as possible: an alpha male father, loss of a beloved sister and unrelenting pressure from the society in which he lives and works (who enable him to drink his fancy craft beer as opposed to ‘real beer’) and his own self-induced dystopia.
Connolly and Frisbie are also excellent counterpoints to Skilton’s nuanced and deeply troubled character, each bringing warmth and vitality to roles that will undoubtedly develop as the season continues and actors settle in to their roles. They nevertheless are highly reactive female roles and despite Connolly giving an excellent performance, her character is restricted to a series of one-note reactions that seem to resist coming to terms with the limits of her boyfriend’s ability to communicate in ways that she wants. Similarly, Frisbie’s role seems to function more as a device to offer context to the scale and scope of disaster and for Daniel to react to. The opening scenes are perhaps the strongest, with Grenelle’s brusque exchanges offering an opportunity for genuine empathy with her contradictory client to develop towards the end.
Performing as both an actor and director, Feeney succeeds admirably as the proud mentor, stalwart friend and the disappointed colleague as he watches his prime student unravel in a world that seems have done away with integrity. Extremely personable, his character strikes a remarkably genuine note that balances much of the see-saw shifts in the play.
In light of the changes to Australia’s Carbon Emission tax and the highly volatile government over the past few years it’s easy to see how Meadows’ writing has been shaped by recent events in our neighbour’s rather turbulent recent years. Within a New Zealand context, the Christchurch tragedy seems to be only an oblique reference and this is in fact to the play’s credit – but what is perhaps most problematic dramaturgically is the structure of the play itself.
Beautifully framed, the narratives are told to us through episodic flashes and the quasi realism becomes a tad boring rather quickly. Running at 110 minutes it is simply too long and somewhere in the middle seems to lose its direction in the various puddles that the story creates – murky and occasionally slightly shallow. At a time when theatre often promises to offer a sharp and delicious entrée at around 70 minutes, Between Two Waves held high expectations of a theatrical banquet – but it misses the mark here. Excessive telling rather than showing and an emphasis on chronology and multiple endings corrodes the sense of cohesion that could have supported the drama of the text.
The references to T.S Eliot are exquisite and apt but in some ways almost irritatingly convenient. As a result, the final closing moments, when the show does finally end, are rather insipid and clichéd. But perhaps that’s merely because it could have ended 20 minutes prior to the rather anti-climactic denouement.
Aesthetically the show works well in the Herald theatre. Lighting designer Nik Janiurek has curated some remarkable lighting states but occasionally (and these may be opening night hiccups) the changes are far too abrupt. However, his design works well with Simon Barker’s Vision and Sound Design. The latter does an excellent job of not overwhelming the audience with excessive projection, and the layered ceiling (in the case of the Herald theatre) works well for the various projections and interview with Wallace Chapman, Brittany Clark and Mark Mitchinson who certainly deliver all that their roles demand.
The rain is lovely for the first time but after that it becomes a trope that we seem to get barraged with unnecessarily. Yes, the characters are suffering the ramifications of a flood, physical and emotional upheaval etc. etc. but is it necessary to overwhelm the audience with watery metaphors?
In some ways the brilliance of the play is that despite the deluge Daniel remains marooned in the trenches of his own making. His emotional arc is non-existent and it is his inertia that is in some ways more symptomatic of reality. It is to Meadows’ credit that he avoids giving us the conventional triumphant ending – for some the storm will not pass.
Between the Waves is very good theatre and although there is still work to be done to refine the expansion and contraction of the various narratives it is a well-executed, smart production and the cast and crew are to be highly commended. Go check it out.
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