Sydney has a new theatre company, and if National Theatre of Parramatta continues to program works like Swallow (written by Olivier Award-winning young Scottish playwright Stef Smith) it is going to become a true force to be reckoned with. Letting this production set the tone for the company demonstrates an exciting beginning.
Under the direction of Kate Champion, and built behind the scenes by a majority of women in tech and creative roles, the play (which was a hit at Edinburgh Fringe in 2015) gives grace and strength to two women and a transman deep in crisis, each facing a potential turning point.
Sam (Valerie Berry) is beginning to shed his old identity and say goodbye to his female-identifying name. Rebecca (Megan Drury) has separated from her husband, and is not coping with her ex’s betrayal and her subsequent grief. Anna (Luisa Hastings-Edge, most recently on Sydney stages in Sydney Theatre Company’s Orlando) has not left her flat in too long, and is smashing all her mirrors and ripping up her floorboards, preparing for the latest in a line of projects designed to keep her mind distracted – this one perhaps her last.
On a spare set with a cool, unforgiving edge (by Anna Tregloan), Champion has crafted a compelling portrait of shattered individuals searching for the right tools to put themselves back together. All the white blankness onstage forces us to look to the characters for warmth, and we find it in spades.
It all comes from Berry’s irresistibly charming Sam, who tries to use hopefulness and confidence to get through the day; Drury’s Rebecca, a glorious study in festering nerves, tries trading in her pleasant everyday demeanour for interiority and anger until her mask is prised up just a little by a friendly stranger; Hastings-Edge’s Anna tries denial: of the outside world and of her own condition, as she embarks on a search for purity. But she isn’t alone, either – not if the birds outside her window (and one special bird, later) have anything to say about it. Hastings-Edge gives an outstanding performance: no caricature, no affectations of ‘crazy’ – just the truth of unravelling and recovery.
Smith’s script is ambitious and her characters’ lives become slowly and satisfyingly intertwined. There are moments that feel undercooked and heavy-handed – some dialogue drips with too-intricate imagery and some moments feel too perfect – or at least, more precise than the authentic messiness of each character really allows. Her script flourishes when it embraces those human imperfections and teases them out into an emotional exploration of trauma. The best example of this comes from two remarkable moments, both from Anna, as she tries to explain what happened to keep her locked inside her flat, unable to go outside.
But the best thing about Smith’s play, and perhaps the most successful thing about it, is its compassion. Smith loves Sam, Rebecca, and Anna, and validates their pain as understandable, as normal. The play gives great love and humanity to people with mental illness, to ‘emotional’ women, and to people who are gender noncomforming.
Champion has tapped into this compassion. With help from Max Lyandvert’s soundscape, she integrates the trio into the world – a recognisable, everyday Sydney world – rather than setting them apart from reality as we know it. Traffic is a muted constant; neighbours learn each other’s comings and goings from inevitable eavesdropping; coffee shops have the same regulars.
A founder and former artistic director of Force Majeure, Champion has a background in dance and physical theatre. In Swallow she borrows from those mediums’ more abstract forms of expression, but balances the interpretive movement of cast members with reassuring repetition, creating a sense of familiarity and normalcy. The result is a sense this could be anyone; that this is everyone. We can’t help but love these three and hope for their recovery, and for the tentative romance to flourish.
If you’re queer, if you’re a woman, if you’re trans, if you’re dealing with trauma or some circumstance or condition that makes life more difficult for you – Swallow may give you a great gift of theatrical catharsis, and a little flicker of hope. There is nothing more comforting than feeling like maybe there is a place for you in the world after all, and for a new Sydney company to program a work that suggests it will cater to those usually left behind onstage is incredibly encouraging.