THE SOUND OF WAITING Production images: Phil Erbacher

THE SOUND OF WAITING is emotionally affecting while also being effective storytelling.  It is spectacularly well conceived technically.  It is created with care and it has two extraordinary performances at its heart, which it wears on its sleeve, but it’s a tough watch.  That, however, is probably irrelevant given the material.

Mary Anne Butler is a playwright whose work I love.  BROKEN, Darlinghurst Theatre in 2016, was marvellous and her play CUSP, which was done recently in a reading at the National Play Festival, is equally as impressive.  The plays reach out through their knowable characters to inform and encourage empathy in the viewer.  Responsiveness is slightly different here in THE SOUND OF WAITING, where one of the two characters is an Angel of Death and the other has a story which is not new to any consumer of news or current affairs.

Ordered by The Host to destroy all displaced persons on the planet, the Angel will narrate directly to us about her rise and elevation and with great candour, her obsequiousness to power.  Hamed is mortal, is threatened, is optionless and is vulnerable to destruction by the forces that threaten him and his daughter.  Forces that remove his choices.  After terrible suffering, through luck and effort he finds himself on a refugee boat clinging to the hope of safety for his daughter.  Where his already heard story and her imagined existence collide is where the audience hears a new truth. There is a lack of inevitability in this play’s narrative and a humanity which is rich and unavoidable.

The performances from Reza Momenzada and Gabrielle Scawthorn are detailed and focused.   Each addresses the audience directly.  Scawthorn is initially conversational and explanatory, wanting to be liked as she speaks in the employment vernacular of durry breaks and LSL.  But her use of “bingo” is chilling as she moves into the dark of the kill and the massing of angels.  Hamed becomes her given task to destroy and here the Angel’s complexity and conflict is beautifully drawn by Scawthorn.  Momenzada, on the other hand, has little time to explain himself as Hamed begins in an horrific relating.  He brings Hamed’s strength of character immediately to the fore, while allowing us to interpret the shock, PTSD and willpower in the man.  Both of these artists have given us fully fleshed characters without which the denouement of the piece would struggle to survive.

And in this production directed by Suzanne Pereira, it climaxes and ends with power and resonance.  Admittedly, even though only an hour, it is hard to sustain theatrical tension in an audience for a play where light moments are rare and the watching hard.  This is where technology is so superbly interpolated.  It is used to support those flagging moments, to emphasize emotional ones and to provide context with an integration that never overwhelms.

Much use in made of the forestage and the onstage set is made of black boxes and risers …  but brilliantly sloped and bevelled such that the characters are seldom flat-footed, almost always alert and off balance.  It is such sophisticated simplicity.  Then there is projection from several machines.  (Set and Video Design: Sam James)  In concert with the amber and steel lighting (Design: Chris Page) that pools but never shadows the faces, the projections are warm sepia and whited greys.  Barbed wire in light, blurred photos of lost families, nebulae, stars, clouds scudding by and ocean … violent, storm ridden water rising bidden by the Angel.

There is a centre parted, running, full drop scrim that can be distracting when drawn or opened but what it does serve to do is to provide a screen which adds to the unease when required.  With other drops behind the raised and isolated boxes, the throw is reflected on and then through.  And one moon, silver blue with slight rainbow corona, becomes two.  The music and effects (Audio Design: Tegan Nicholls) also adds to the overall effect with music as subtle as a struck note and echo on a wooden xylophone, to the sea … the threatening, rising and engulfing sea.

It is in that ocean that the play will bring a new perspective to the refugee story.  Spiritual and corporeal will merge and twist against the melding to give  renewed topicality to an issue which has fallen off the front page and out of the news bulletins.  One superbly created story provoking compassion for all.

THE SOUND OF WAITING continues at Darlinghurst Theatre [Facebook] until April 22nd.