Try as we might to make order for chaos – to search for the ‘God particle’ and name the reasons for the staggering implausibility of our existence – the chaos keeps coming. Our humanity encourages it: we’re all burdened by emotional impulses, learned behaviours and misinformation. How do we make sense out of the mess of life, especially when life seems to get messier and messier? That’s the central tension in Mosquitoes, Lucy Kirkwood’s uneasy play making its Australian debut at the Sydney Opera House, and this point is hammered home hard.
Alice (Jacqueline McKenzie) works at CERN; she’s part of a team of physicists at the Large Hadron Collider. She’s brilliant and proud of it, not least because her mother Karen (Annie Byron) was a prominent scientist who detests stupidity. Alice’s sister Jenny (Mandy McElhinney), then, never stood a chance: she doesn’t get Heisenberg jokes and isn’t sure if ultrasounds are safe for her unborn baby. After a devastating loss, the tense lives of these three women collide in Geneva. It doesn’t go well: Karen is ageing into infirmity; Alice’s son Luke (Charles Wu) has a burgeoning red-pill vibe; Jenny is a mess of grief and guilt; and Alice, the family’s calm centre of gravity, is about to break apart.
A man named the Boson (Jason Chong) pops up to give us physics lessons; a young woman named Natalie (Nikita Waldron) becomes the uncomfortable target of Luke’s interest; and Jenny’s position in the family deteriorates, despite her compassionate care for her mother and sister as they face their own losses. Meanwhile, the Large Hadron Collider is nearing its switch-on date. The world seems almost knowable. But of course it isn’t.
This is the third Kirkwood play in as many years to be produced at STC, following Chimerica (directed by Kip Williams) and The Children (directed by Sarah Goodes). Jess Arthur has the directorial reins here and the script is better for it. This is a play full of discomforts, deaths and challenges, and Arthur stays true to this: nothing in this Mosquitoes is easily won. The best part of this overstuffed work is its examination of family cruelty, love and conflict, and Arthur digs deep into this emotional reality. Alice and Jenny: they’re the heart of it all, and they’re well-matched here. McElhinney does much of the play’s emotional heavy lifting as Jenny, and her performance is a natural, unpretentious and blessedly unforced one, even with its difficult mix of trauma, comedy and pain. McKenzie is her cooler-headed match, steely until she can no longer be.
Nick Schlieper’s lights frequently embrace the cool blues of space and science while James Brown’s composition and sound dials up the tension. Still, intimate moments can feel easily dwarfed by the Drama Theatre’s stretched letterbox shape, and here a few critical scenes take place so far upstage (set design by Elizabeth Gadsby) that we can’t touch them or feel their impact. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s so much going on in Mosquitoes that you could be numbed by it. There’s an exhausting catalogue of human suffering here, and its marriage with particle physics, used as a framing device and extended metaphor, is a labored one. At two hours and 50 minutes’ running time, you get the sense that there’s a cleaner, leaner Mosquitoes hiding within this play, and it’s a shame that we don’t get to see that one.
Still, this is an anxious play for anxious times. We finally know what black holes look like; the world is dying and that’s still too big for us to comprehend. Kirkwood might be lost in the unknowability of her subjects, but there’s something to be said for a play that makes space for us to feel our uncertainties together, and ask ourselves what we might do to mitigate the noise and chaos of being alive.