Audacious choices. Hone the text to the experiential, removing unnecessary mystery or ancillary story. Cast it well, gather a stellar creative team. Unvarnish the space, starken the setting, eliminate theatrics. Finally, hand it over to an audience. Once the choice is made to never overwhelm the watcher, the subject matter requires gentle expression.
For here is an evident simplicity, a meagreness of story and an intellectually rigorous depth of research to create work that whispers to an audience without clamour, of sadness and hurt and the complexity of failure. I loved the stripped and spare nature of MUM, ME & THE I.E.D I loved the lightness of touch in the funny, human moments. I thought the performances were needle sharp, bayonet sharp.
We plunge into a night terror. When he awakes, Rob will be the object of our attention as we become immersed in his struggle to recover from PTSD stemming from his time in Afghanistan. He is in therapy with Melody, who despite her mellifluous name is ranked military, army brat and assigned as his counsellor. She has his file and knows why he is jerky, fractured and brash to buggered in unforeseeable bursts. We must engage to understand. As does his mother, pacifist antiwar campaigner and left home on the farm in the Mallee. She and he will crawl between the layers of their politics and each one is laid low. There is much of her in this son and his repressed, loving, much older brother, Dennis.
Philippe Klaus is Rob in a tour-de-force performance. Never off stage, never rested, his measured, layered, modulated performance serves this character with the dignity Rob deserves. Klaus is never frenetic or unrealistically riven, instead each beat has the truthfulness and impulse that allows the audience to recognize his inner turmoil. The storytelling is limited here, the scenes having little by way of narrative drivers: an audience needs to invest in Rob’s journey. Klaus brings his creation to life with empathy, an absolute requirement since we don’t see Rob through others’ eyes. His healing in his own hands.
Klaus is gifted with an extraordinary scene partner in Elaine Hudson as Mum. Here is a woman absolutely knowable. Small, robust, “capable” and single parent, activist -fierce in defence of her damaged son. She moves like a farm hand until she softens and melts around her boys. The contrast between her propulsion, her must-do, there has to be an action impetus is beautifully balanced with her impotence in the face of the enormity of PTSD. Hudson subtly conveys a woman who wouldn’t think of saying I told to so, who makes a conscious effort to support the boys’ life choices. The cast sit around the square space, interpolating at times but always involved and Hudson’s fine work is heartbreaking in her silence and watching.
Similarly, the rest of the cast also have presence and power as they watch Rob travelling through his trauma. Melody (Matilda Brodie) has a bearing and military mindset at odds with a caring profession. Not short of empathy, just blinded by professional lines and the learned rules about the therapeutic relationship, Brodie brings out the contradictions without rigid characterisation. And when she takes an unforgivable stance in Act Two it is genuine and all the more confronting because of it.
The cast is rounded out by Joshua Shediak as Brownie, Rob’s larrikin best mate in the Service. This role is crucial and Shediak is warm and funny and always on Rob’s side. You can see it in every interaction, every watching moment and there are several distressing scenes which foreground the quality of his work … heartwrenching in places. Just as warm and supportive of Rob is Martin Harper’s Dennis. He and Klaus have such a strong command of the representation of them as boys, bonded by a shanghai. It’s fine technical work but not just. The paternal nature of their relationship due to the age difference and difference in their natures is very well explored. Harper also plays another character with odious excellence.
If the bullying is hard to watch, the establishment closing ranks is harder. Ally this with an absurd institutional justification of behaviour by causative failure and there is much in the story that is very hard to stomach. This is a new Australian play. Written by James Balian and Roger Vickery it is replete with truth and the passion to explore the issue of PTSD. Thematically, though, emotion is tempered with realism and the text abjures from trickery or in your face theatrixs. There is no red here, apart from the rich Mallee red of the farm shirt and another woman looking for uplift. MUM, ME & THE I.E.D is conceptualised to world-build with mimetics, mouth made field first aid or pinpoint tech. There is no shock and awe of the audience despite the clear elucidation of Rob’s torment.
With centre stage used sparingly, this is a squared off production. Early on, movement, seating and travel, is militarily straight and coordinated. Director Kevin Jackson has no fear of silence or stillness and uses it to effect, as a way to allow the audience to pull forward into the scene. These men and women often speak to each other across a void and the characters who sit and watch quietly implicate themselves in the action with a smile or a worry.
The audio (Ben Pierpoint) does arrive sharply at times but seldom leaves so, simply fading as Rob’s demons recede. And the soundscapes are created with precision then blurred into impressive impressionism. Skype connection sounds hover just outside perception until needed and industrial drones evoke troop transports and metal locking in metal. Particularly well manifested is the backlash of Melody’s memory and one hears Rob’s tortures without overt manipulation of volume or verisimilitude. The paddock at night might well be my sound effect of the year.
Martin Kinnane’s lighting mixes the cool and warm of confusion and clarity with a fluorescent feel to the medical, institutional space. Colour never floods. The actors are always in stark realism, amber or white, even if there is blue or green around the edges. Keeping the costuming to muted jungle green or sand beige gives character without show. And the set is superbly realized. Reminiscent of the human shadows left when Little Boy destroyed Hiroshima it grows in urgency as one becomes familiar with the scream inside the grey tones. (Rachel Scane: Costume and Set).
MUM, ME & THE I.E.D is an achievement of impressive proportion. It spares the audience any excess of explosion or horror or injury without ever diminishing the theme. This accessibility is how it touches and educates without fear. This is a moving production that speaks to the moment and I cannot recommend it highly enough.