This world premiere play explores the parallel between colony collapse and a family's implosion
There is a problem with the bees. It is called colony collapse disorder – when the colony inexplicably abandons the hive and leaves behind the queen – and it has been creating havoc among bee populations around the world. The only continent that has remained immune until now is Australia. Caleb Lewis’s world premiere play The Honey Bees supposes this immunity lost, and the sense is of an entire ecosystem on the brink.
Not that this play’s focus is necessarily global. If anything, there is a distinctly domestic charge to the story of a family desperately trying to ward off economic and emotional collapse. The wider concerns of environment are, if not quite irrelevant, little more than a background hum.
Joan [Marta Kaczmarek] is the matriarch and head of the family business since the death of her husband Harry. It used to be a honey business, but sales have slowed dramatically, and son Daryl [Christopher Brown] returns from self-imposed exile with a deal that may stave off financial ruin. It means selling the actual bees to the Americans, resulting in their certain death but freeing the family of mounting debt.
Daughter Clover [Rebecca Bower] hates the idea but has resigned herself to it, as long as her own personal store of bees is kept apart. She is still fixated on the hagiography of her dead father, despite evidence of his philandering and emotional distance, and she tends to his memory as lovingly as she tends to her bees. Her myth of the noble patriarch is tested, however, when a stranger named Melissa [Eva Seymour] literally crashes into the family’s life.
In a huge debt to Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard, Lewis teases out the ways in which family can stifle and suppress, evoking that play’s elegiac stagnation if not its tragic wistfulness for a world already lost. Ibsen is evident in there too, with plot contrivances that turn on letters and family secrets. We’ve seen Chekov and Ibsen in Australian rural settings before and, while Lewis should be congratulated on writing an original work instead of stealing directly from those masters, there is something almost formulaic about The Honey Bees.
What lifts it from the merely mundane is the playwright’s gift for metaphor and a brilliant central performance from Kaczmarek. She is an actor who deserves far wider recognition and more space on our major stages; here she is quietly monstrous and appealing. Her nobility of purpose is married to unstoppable ruthlessness, and she manages to convey wealths of bitterness and disappointment under her steely surface.
No one else in the play comes close to her, although Bower is touchingly bereft as the self-deluding Clover and Katerina Kotsonis is very strong as her lover, Kerrie. Brown has a tough role as the unlikable prodigal son, but he fails to pull it off; he is mealy when he should be outraged, and the result is that the tragic register never really fires.
Director Ella Caldwell does a serviceable job bringing this new work to the stage, and Sophie Woodward’s set and Daniel Anderson’s lighting design are beautifully evocative of a blasted red landscape on the edge of extinction. The impulse to mystery and suggestion, embodied in the beautifully unresolved performance of Kaczmarek, is commendable and promises a further life for this strange and ambitious play. Unlike the bees, or us, it would seem.