Cli-fi comes to stage in this new Australian play by Josephine Collins, set in a dystopian Australia, around a small country-town pub
Australian writers are generally reluctant adopters of genre, especially niche genres like cyberpunk; the number of works that deal with climate-related dystopias – what is referred to as cli-fi – can be counted on one hand. The most famous would have to be George Miller’s Mad Max films, but we have seen some recent examples in the world of literature, like Briohny Doyle’s The Island Will Sink and James Bradley’s Clade. Plays are even rarer; Stephen Sewell’s It Just Stopped and Caleb Lewis’s Honey Bees are the only ones that spring immediately to mind. Now we can add Josephine Collins’s debut play, The Way Out, which imagines a future Australia devastated by a civil war and ecological ruin.
It’s not surprising that theatre tends to avoid epic dystopian fantasy; the exhaustive world building required suits either the long form inherent to the novel or film’s ability to convey masses of information quickly by purely visual means. Theatre needs to laboriously state the parameters of its world through dialogue, and Collins struggles mightily to make this work. Her scenario is incredibly dense and complicated – with its past civil war between North and South Australia, its complex systems of trade and economy, its deadly pathogens and subsequent death camps – and detailing it leaves very little space for character development or emotional connection.
Helen (Brigid Gallacher) runs the local pub with her dad Stewart (Dion Mills), negotiating the severe restrictions placed on them by the governing body known as the Australian Rivers Corp, or ARC, while trading illegally on the black market. Family friend Ryan (Kevin Hofbauer) helps in this aim by scouring the blasted country for goods and warning the town when ARC agents are about to carry out random inspections.
When ARC agent Fyfe (Rory Kelly) arrives, all prissy efficiency and false bonhomie, he threatens to uncover the pub’s illegal activity, but it isn’t until another outsider Harry (Sahil Saluja) turns up, with his own methods of survival, that the stakes are raised to breaking point. Throw in Claire (Olga Makeeva), an old war buddy of Stewart’s who is suffering from the virus that has decimated the population, and you get the potential for a Tarantino-inspired showdown in a small space.
The small space has been particularly well realised by set and costume designer Charlotte Lane, and brilliantly lit by Claire Springett. The pub is a rusty, crumbling marvel, clinging to the edges of its environment like an endangered barnacle. It gives the play an authenticity and texture that helps sell the rather wacky conceit. The technology, from Fyfe’s ingenious wrist device to the secret passageway in the wall, is thoroughly convincing.
The performances are uneven; Gallacher makes much of the weary but quietly optimistic Helen, Kelly is fantastic as the clipped and savage Fyfe, and Makeeva brings genuine poignancy to the dying Claire. But Mills struggles with his accent, and Saluja underplays the desperation that drives Harry. Hofbauer is usually reliable, but he struggles to pull off the sudden emotional leaps in the character. A fight late in the play is poorly handled, fizzing just when it needed to shock.
Collins is a debut playwright, and she’s been admirably ambitious in her scope and imagination, but The Way Out doesn’t really work in its current form. For much of its running time, the dialogue is almost entirely expository, overstuffed with details that leave no room for nuance or psychological verisimilitude. When the character development comes, it comes all at once, in an unlikely spooling of emotion. Director Penny Harpham tries to wrangle the piece into a coherent whole, but her actors play it in a heightened, muscular register that is too much for the intimate space. The effect is often silly where it needed to be bleak and credible.
Red Stitch should be congratulated for committing to this play, a new Australian work that aims for something epic and speculative. If it isn’t a total success, it at least demonstrates originality of thought and intention. Longer development, with perhaps another production in the future, might see it yield stronger results.