This new play from Lachlan Philpott asks what happens to a person when they go missing
It’s an odd thing, but theatre is probably the art form that dates faster and more obviously than any other; plays that are considered incredibly vital, that take hold of the zeitgeist, can easily seem hopelessly outmoded only a few years later. It’s quite rare in this country for plays to have more than one production, and those that get mounted again and again are rarer still. It’s for this reason alone that audiences should welcome Red Stitch’s Victorian premiere of Lachlan Philpott’s Colder, a play that premiered in NSW in 2008. Given that it feels as immediate and relevant as any play written this year, it’s actually a cause for great rejoicing.
It concerns itself with the disappearance of David (Charles Purcell), not once but twice. The first disappearance occurs when he’s a young boy, at Disneyland, when he runs off from his mother Robyn (Marissa Bennett) and leaves something cavernous and unspeakable between them. The second occurs when he’s an adult, and this time his sudden, inexplicable absence affects not only his mother (played now by Caroline Lee), but his best friend Kay (Brigid Gallacher) and boyfriend Ed (Ben Pfeiffer). Philpott uses these two events, separated by time but not by effect, to muse on loss and grief and the fragility of human connection.
David’s sexuality is central to the play. There’s a sense that Robyn intuits her son’s nature before he’s capable of understanding it, and that his disappearance is tied somehow to something abhorrent in him. Philpott daringly folds some of the unsavoury aspects of gay culture into the work, equating risky sexual practice with spiritual turpitude and personal bereavement. That title – with its suggestion of the game of ‘hot and cold’ we all play, where the further one gets from one’s goal the colder one becomes – is chillingly referenced throughout.
It’s a daring piece, both formally and thematically, and there is simply no one who could bring it to fruition better than director Alyson Campbell. Anyone who saw their previous collaborations – The Trouble with Harry was a Melbourne Festival highlight in 2014 – will understand the simpatico relationship between these two theatre practitioners. Campbell gets the fiendish novelistic details in Philpott’s work, the repetitions and echoes, the broken and syncopated rhythms in the writing, the intricate temporal loops, and she ushers it expertly to the stage. The actors weave and dodge each other, avoiding eye contact but easing their bodies closer, and the wider effect is one of desperate and fragile connection.
The cast are brilliant, heartbreakingly so. Bennett sets the tone, laying down a portrait of grief and loss that seems to pre-date her son’s disappearance. Gallacher and Pfeiffer open the play with broad, albeit precise, caricatures of false American bonhomie, but then go on to produce deeply troubled representations of confusion and regret. Pfeiffer in particular fairly pulsates with unresolved grief as the boyfriend suddenly cast adrift. Purcell has great presence as the ultimately unknowable missing person, but he never quite nails the existential dread at the heart of the character. This isn't such a problem; indeed, it almost heightens one of the central points of the play, that those closest to us are often the most enigmatic. Lee delivers the performance of the night as the mother who locks her ambivalence away along with her compassion, letting her defences slowly eat away at her, like termites or rising damp. It’s hopelessly moving.
The set design (Bethany J. Fellows) is a curious wooden half bowl that curves away from the audience, spray-painted white in the centre and black on both sides. It’s less a liminal space than no space at all, impossibly angled and obtuse. Bronwyn Pringle’s lighting design is beautifully judged, with the majority of the effects peeking through the wooden slats, a promise of something beautiful that doesn’t quite resolve. It creates a palpable sense of timelessness, of a place where memories conjoin, merge and then dissipate.
Philpott is without doubt one of the greatest playwrights this country has produced, and this play – in some ways scathing about the flippant, cynical connections that seethe under the surface of gay life – is as uncompromising about the isolation that underpins all human relationships as it is riveting and profound about the ways we choose to connect. The city should be thankful we get to see it, and look forward to it returning some time soon. That he be supported to write as much as possible in the future should become a national concern.