Confronting look at the human animal

Wednesday, July 24, 1996

Solitary Animals
By Elaine Acworth
Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 2
Reviewed by Tony Smith

This new, very Australian, play is powerful and confronting, sometimes dense with emotion and occasionally overstretched. It is daring theatre, risking a great deal and achieving much.

In the opening scene, the characters do not speak. They move, choreographed, to haunting music, she (Veronica Neave) with camera, recording the poses of a male sexual partner (Wayne Pygram). Above all else, the play concerns voyeurism and the possibilities of attaining understanding without experience. This scene places the audience at the centre of its critical perspectives, accusing us of the very attitudes, compromises and rationalisations which drive the four characters.

These four — a female photojournalist, a male war correspondent, a Serbian camp guard (Dino Marnika) and a Bosnian woman (Melita Jurisic), camp survivor and witness to the horrors of ethnic cleansing — are thrown together in all possible combinations as elements of their characters unpeel, onion-like. This exposition of character is the play's main development, with the plot being mainly an inevitable slide into crisis and confrontation.

So the genocide in Bosnia comes to suburban Newtown through the migration of the Serbian guard, the travels of the journalists and the arrival of the Bosnian woman on a lecture tour for Amnesty International. But the Australian city has its own horrors to contribute, as one character is determined to use his HIV status as a weapon, first in undeclared and unprotected sexual contact which might pass for love, and finally, when he abandons all pretence of conscience, as means of assault and undisguised vengeful killing.

The play explores the possibility of subjective cures for these troubles through the relationship between the Serb and the photojournalist. He courts her, apparently loving her beyond any problem: "Bloody love", he calls her in that quaint Australian superlative. Then there is the Bosnian who shuns victimhood by refusing to hate, although the other characters impose upon her to do so. Overriding the clash of these two modern sources of despair, war and AIDS, is the continual presence of the media which form our attitudes.

When the living representative of the tragedy of Bosnia appears on midday television, the interviewer asks whether she has seen kangaroos yet. This rush for safe territory is the most damning indictment of our failure to learn, our inability to empathise, our unwillingness to understand. This is western society's version of the cultural bankruptcy and ethnocentrism which creates "Bosnias" in "those places" and "AIDS pandemics" in "those sub-cultures".

Again it is the voyeurism which juggles the AIDS and genocide themes. That is why the medium — in this case, the theatre — is paramount. In some respects the production seemed rough, especially the use of ambient music, the definition of space and the language of the soliloquies.

Until the final violent scene, the almost-denouement, the characters inhabit separate spaces. Cunningly, they overlap, almost penetrating into other spaces and intruding their bodies where they do not belong. But the stagecraft here is slightly underdone. The incomplete feeling arises the moment that a message written on a card is projected onto the wall. So too as various characters use an orange and blue public telephone, their location loses significance.

The central character's soliloquies seem pretentious — perhaps deliberately so. The dialogue was generally more natural and built on plain language, and the timing of the actors beyond reproach, although the pace of the silent scenes may benefit from fine tuning, as may the deportment of the Serb and Bosnian characters in the final scene.

There are depths to these characters which May develop differently on another night. This spontaneity is part of the excitement of theatre and sits well with the adventurousness of this script.