Production photography by Rupert Reid Photography.
Darkness edges the two figures who appear before us. The shadowy stage lights have crept up to wash the tiny downstage area with a yellow tinged late afternoon falling. They are hard to make out these two schoolkids with their bored skatepark slouching. The effort of peering seems to blur them more.
They will pull us, disturbed and fearful for them, into their fragile, adolescent lives in ninety minutes of engrossing theatre yet the playwright, director and cast of MOTH (atyp) conspire to be unreliable narrators. Claryssa and Sebastian will never really take shape. They will flutter just beyond our understanding and will beat their wings wildly to warn us away. At the end of the play, as these creations melt back into darkness and we emerge blinking into the light, we are slow and panicky in our anxiety for the young people around us and the world we are leaving them.
It’s after school and the two are hangin’. Despite Claryssa’s emo inspired black choker and ripped black stockings, she avows to be Wiccan rather than a bridge and tunnel stereotype. Surly, uncommunicative she turns her back on the antics of Sebastian. He is obviously a serious povo, with his spindly legs sticking out of his dirty, unkempt uniform. A great mimic and a serial breath-holder he knows how to get her attention. And engagingly, he amuses himself no end in the process.
There is obviously a history of companionship between the two. But a cataclysm of bullies will drive them away from each other and from any comforts to be found in friendship or in despair shared.
Ruby O’Kelly is Claryssa. It’s a performance which is grounded and physical. She often hurls herself into a place or an attitude and Claryssa’s descent has greater darkness because of it. She does not overplay the truculence or the walls either and brings considerable emotional depth to character who, true to life, has a very limited vocabulary.
Playwright Declan Greene’s adolescent dialogue is very realistic and muscle memory sometimes had me reaching for my playground duty whistle as though I had just come upon them insolently in the out of bounds area.
Without ever being warm, O’Kelly brings us a Claryssa to care for. Just lovely character work. Jeremi Campese on the other hand gives us a warm and sweet Sebastian. He is so funny in places but the livewire delivery is beautifully moderated to allow for the undercurrents of darkness. Sebastian coughs blood, there is something murky deep within him! Campese’s performance is genuine and heartbreaking as Sebastian loses his ability to fly when scales are ripped from his wings by a malicious hand.
The two actors not only play Claryssia and Sebastian. Greene’s text has them dropping out of dialogue into first and third person narrative with the other actor interpreting teachers, other kids, parents etc. Sometimes, even as a critical second person voice interfering in the memory or the story and correcting events or wishful thinking. This is where the steady hand of director Rachel Chant has guided the production to the unsettling obfuscation which gives MOTH such complexity and longevity.
From focussed moments of clarity to bluesky imaginings Chant uses eerie and redolent tech and design to unsettle the viewer, both overtly and seamlessly. When the kids are on the oval at night, the high bright floodlights often hit the audience full on. It’s assaulting and disorienting, especially when the rumble pack under the seats vibrates with the power of the audio. But in places the grey of the set makes it slightly disappear and the lighting is long with shadows, cold with blue as the audio is barely heard pizzicato rising to crescendo with the drama. The use of primal, sticklike clicking in simulating keystrokes echoes the single note piano of the scenes before. (Tom Hogan: Sound Design, Chrysoulla Markoulli: Composer, Alexander Berlage: Lighting Designer, Tyler Ray Hawkins: Designer)
And the animation by Todd Fuller blurs Claryssa and Sebastian even more. Beautifully rendered, the hand drawn moths flutter and the dust rises from their wings in clouds of inner confusion. Deep black whorls disappearing back into light reflect the decay and isolation of these two children as their story comes to a close.
MOTH is a must-see for anyone who cares about the increasingly pressured world which young people inhabit. An adult may never understand fully, there will always be something unknowable about the way they experience what can be a dark and dangerous place, but this production might just be the way to open the conversation.
MOTH continues at ATYP Studio 1 until September 16.