One of the most challenging things about adolescence is that we often don’t have the language to communicate what we are going through, nor the practice of being vulnerable enough to convey it. Grief, loss, heartbreak, depression, the inevitability of death – how are we supposed to navigate these experiences?
Thomas Weatherall took a practical approach: writing. Many of you may be familiar with his acting chops from playing Malakai Mitchell in the recent breakout Netflix remake of Heartbreak High. It seems like it could be a lot of pressure to follow up his breakout stardom with a one-man-show, until you realise that this show and his quest to “become a writer” came first. Developed from four years of diary entries, Blue is Thomas Weatherall’s deeply moving Australian stage debut as a writer and performer.
Mark’s family is impacted by a tragic loss, which starts a canon of events: his father leaves, he falls into a deep depression, and when he resurfaces, he moves in with a new housemate, Effie. Effie and Mark fall in love, but the impacts of the tragedies Mark has experienced linger between them. In the process of moving through these moments, Mark and his mother start writing each other letters. It’s a confessional practice which eventually becomes habitual, something only the two of them share, until one day, he receives one he can’t quite fathom.
As a performer, Weatherall is immensely engaging
The “coming-of-age” story is such well-trodden territory in film, theatre and television that it can sometimes be difficult to say something new. This is partly due to the fact that these stories have historically been told from a limited perspective. Weatherall’s connection to the land, water in particular, and to his family as a young, Kamilaroi man is palpable. This is a refreshing connection through which he communicates the state of his mental health and the passing of grief – one which we rarely have the opportunity to see so viscerally.
The writing is similarly rhythmic, like the rising and falling of a wave, at once deep and vulnerable and also filled with vivid imagery and dark humour. The monologue itself is a movement through grief in which he is able to remarkably hold both the heartbreak and the mundanity of tragedy at once. It’s his ability to hold this tension that makes his messages so universal. We don’t all experience grief the same way or the same each time we encounter it – it can creep up on you, surprise you.
Weatherall’s dark humour carries us gently through the difficult parts of the story, leaning on intricate metaphors to build imagery that helps to explain his reaction to events. References to Puff the Magic Dragon, writers like Richard Flanagan, music from the ’90s and more modern day jests about the way real coffee drinkers drink coffee (it’s black, by the way), build the picture of who Mark is. His dark humour sometimes catches you off guard – likening falling in love to the four stages of a house burning down is particularly savage, and yet this metaphor perfectly articulates the strange, devastating beauty of starting something you know you might eventually lose.
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Direction by Bangarra Dance Theatre alumna Deborah Brown amplifies Weatherall’s natural charisma and writing style. Building on the wave concept, Brown works with the incomparable Jacob Nash (Bangarra’s current head of artistic design) and Cris Baldwin (who assisted with costumes for The Drovers Wife: The Legend of Molly Johnson) to make a literal white wave of the stage that rises at the back as if it might envelope Mark at any moment. The opaque white surface also appears crumpled and unstable, crunching with each step, much like the paper on which Mark exchanges letters, and writes about his equally fraught feelings and memories. A hidden pool of water is revealed, vertically through the centre of the stage, which Weatherall often steps and slides into, adding depth to moments in the story.
Onto the set-piece, video designer David Bergman projects enchanting images of the waves meeting the land, visually stunning hues of blue and green creating the peace that Mark feels when in the water. Sound design by Wil Hughes accompanies these visuals, introducing the echoes of waves, wind and growing thunder that build tension and suspense when needed. Lighting by Chloe Ogilvie between these projections could be softer so as not to take the audience outside of the moment, although sometimes the jump to white signals a shift in tone or pace that is rather effective.
As a performer, Weatherall is immensely engaging. He establishes his role as the storyteller within the show’s first moments, able to create an intimacy that I would liken to sitting around a campfire. While watching, it’s difficult not to believe that Mark and his story are real, a testament to Weatherall’s vulnerability. Writers write what they can’t say, and here he is, saying it. After this performance I think we can safely say that Thomas Weatherall is no longer “becoming a writer” – he is more than just a writer, he is an artist.
The only disappointing part of this Sydney Festival Blak Out program world premiere is that it’s only running at Belvoir St Theatre for two weeks. I wish I could revel in the effortless beauty of this burning house one more time.
Blue is playing at Belvoir St Theatre until January 29, 2023, as part of Sydney Festival. Tickets are on sale here.