Pamela Rabe, Sarah Peirse and William Zappa star in the Aussie premiere of Lucy Kirkwood’s drama about friends grappling with the weight of their past deeds
There’s a tiny detail in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road that still chills me some ten years after I first encountered it. The unnamed father at the centre of this post-apocalyptic hellhole finds himself unable to express to his son a question so basic and terrifying, because the boy is too young to receive it. Hiding in an abandoned barn, the man “stood there thinking about cows and he realised they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what?” This vision of global domesticity snuffed out, and the questions it raises about legacy and generational responsibility, comes to mind watching Lucy Kirkwood’s play The Children. There are cows as symbols of grasping humanity; there are children, in this case grown, incapable of hearing the truth; and there’s a world if not quite post-apocalyptic then certainly on the brink of its own mortality.
Kirkwood imagines – although it’s hardly much of an imaginative leap – that a Fukushima-type nuclear disaster has befallen the UK, and the radiation has destroyed a large area of the British coast. Nuclear engineers Hazel (Pamela Rabe) and her husband Robin (William Zappa) are living dangerously close to the exclusion zone, having abandoned their farm to the poison and the scent of death. Except that Robin has been returning daily to the farm, to feed the aforementioned cows that have strangely survived the fallout. It’s a sop to his wife, who’s “always had a thing about animals”. Into this precarious situation walks Rose (Sarah Peirse), a former colleague at the nuclear reactor who is cagey about her reasons for dropping in on old friends. As well she might be.
Kirkwood is exploring some grand and pressing concerns with this play, about environmental degradation and our culpability in it, about the effects of capitalism on the soul as much as the planet. She’s also talking about the great gap between the generations, and the sense of entitlement that has permeated the world. In the program, the playwright cites Hazel’s line “I don’t know how to want less” as possibly the most crucial, but it could just as easily be Rose’s admonishment that “Electricity isn’t a right!” If we are facing our own destruction, Kirkwood seems to be saying we might as well upend our social order on the way down.
Sarah Goodes directs with the poise and attention to detail audiences are beginning to expect from her, although it does come at the expense of pace and rhythm. Kirkwood has stacked the revelations and dramatic tension at the back half of her play, and Goodes struggles with some serious longueurs in the early scenes. She also blocks the piece strangely, heaping the action to the left of the stage and leaving the right largely untapped. The actors bring heaps of nuance to their characterisations, but the play’s tendency towards static action means that more dynamism is required. The set (Elizabeth Gadsby) is typical of the company, textured and realistic, utterly devoid of abstraction; it’s too finely crafted to be described as workmanlike, but it also does little to expand the play’s effects. It’s beautifully lit by Paul Jackson, however, who renders it rich and mournful.
The performances are often exquisite. Rabe brings her usual brittle genius to the part of Hazel, but she also gets to flex her less-acknowledged gift for comic understatement. Peirse’s ability to create a truly three-dimensional person, to imbue simple gestures with the echo of an entire life, is almost uncanny. Her Rose is a force, both moral and reactionary, and she’s consistently hypnotic. Zappa is solid, if miscast, as the philanderer who comes to face his own limitations as a man and a husband, but the show really belongs to the women.
This is perhaps the greatest take-out of The Children: a female playwright tackling globally significant issues, directed by one of the country’s most exciting directors, with two of the country’s most formidable actors, is by definition something worth seeing. Both McCarthy’s novel and Kirkwood’s play end at the ocean, a symbol of despair or renewal, depending on your inclination. No place for cows, in any case. But where the male vision is almost impossibly bleak and unresolved, the female vision is forcefully open-ended. I know where I’d rather live at the end of the world.