Review / Dynamic tragedy in ANU drama

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THE verb “to atrophy” comes from a Greek noun meaning “wasting away” – a curious choice for one of the most dynamic pieces of theatre I’ve enjoyed in quite a while.

Varma as Dido and Eddey as Aeneas in Olivia Love and Athena Chambers' film.
Varma as Dido and Eddey as Aeneas in Olivia Love and Athena Chambers’ film.
Conceived by two ANU students and performed as a Mental Health week initiative in the abandoned geology labs on Liversidge Street, Acton, this is site-specific performance required the audience to walk, scene by scene, from space to space. Unusually for this kind of experimental theatre, it displayed the highest production values and conveyed a sense of professionalism throughout.

It became clear that the psychological crises experienced by the characters are not to be seen as case studies, but rather an illustration of how, through the great classical authors, feelings and emotions can be released.

Certainly the characters of Ajax and Electra show signs of delusion and compulsion, but with others, like the rejected Medea and Dido, it’s more righteous anger than mental dysfunction and for the three graceful maenads recovering from a Bacchanalian orgy, the dangers of binge-drinking seem close at hand.

In a complex process supported by a bunch of talented students, Greenwood and Varma have plundered the great works of Sophocles, Euripides and Virgil to create a series of vignettes set in the claustrophobic confines of the labs.

Zoe Cameron gets the ripsnorter speech of the night, Medea’s bitter address to the women of Corinth, delivered in a bathtub full of water. She is soon joined by Samantha O’Connell as her alter-ego, with whom she shares the pros and cons of murdering her own children. These scenes, drawn from Euripides could have been written yesterday, so contemporary is their depiction of a scorned woman.

Alexander Hoskinson, as the Creon of Sophocles’ “Antigone”, is the epitome of Hegelian rationalism, but we see just where that gets him, with son, niece and wife all dead in the end. The script for this very impressive segment dips in and out of Sophocles to give us an overview of the play in hindsight.

You’d hardly call it light relief, but Nakiya Xyrakis, Caitlin Dawson and Camilla Greenfield as the three beautiful (and perfectly-costumed) maenads recovering from the night before, giggle and dance among the bushes in an illustration of how good fun can turn nasty.

Back in the lab, we meet two Renaissance-style white-ruffed courtiers (Eleanor Platt and Isobel Nomchong) to the murderous Queen Clytemnestra patronising her disaffected daughter Electra, whose name, it is worth remembering, has been given to a psychological condition of our daughters obsessed with their fathers. Euripides’ sharp analysis of her condition is like that in his Medea – absolutely up-to-date.

In an even tinier lab, we see Varma playing the wronged Dido in her own script but beginning with Virgil’s famous analysis of ‘

“rumour”. Here the acting team is joined by filmmakers Olivia Love and Athena Chambers, who have created a little gem of cinema, a flashback showing Dido with the faithless hero Aeneas, played by Andrew Eddey.

Finally, in a scene outdoors dripping with blood, we meet the genuinely disturbed character, Sophocles’ Ajax, waking from a bout of god-induced madness in which he slaughtered hundreds of livestock, imagining he was killing his opponents. Sorrow and despair were effectively conveyed by Daniel Griess in this scene, which brought “Atrophy” to a conclusion. In his “close-up acting”, he joined his fellow-performers in bringing high-level intensity to the role.

Those who like their theatre light and fluffy would do well to consider Aristotle’s precept that in viewing tragedy we experience catharsis, purging our own emotions through the feelings of pity and fear.

It is because of this that I can say without compromise that “Atrophy” proved to be a thoroughly “nice night in the theatre”.




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Helen Musa
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