INFLUENCE Reviewed by Mel White

Reviewed by Mel White for Briz Tix

Ziggi Blasko- it’s a name destined for fame…or at the very least, notoriety.

Currently showing at Noosa Arts Theatre, is David Williamson’s Influence. As director, Sam Coward explains, “Influence is a scathing and bitingly funny play about the media personalities that dominate our lives and the divisions that can shatter families”. Tackling a Williamson play renowned for political undertones within a verbose text that investigates the ugly side of human nature is no mean feat. While Williamson’s plays focus heavily on human interrelationships and the complexities that come with them, Coward’s approach to Influence is a simple one that highlights the playwright’s intentions with refreshing directorial choices.

Coward’s interpretation is stripped back to the bare essentials. There are no detailed costumes to pretty up the picture and there is no elaborate lighting used to punctuate the mood and atmosphere. The responsibility well and truly lies firmly in the hands of the actors.

The risk that arises with such a minimalist and pared back approach is that you rely 100% on your actors. It’s literally all you have in which to convey your message: the acting does the talking, if you will. There is nothing to hide behind: the acting is the spectacle and needs to not only be entertaining in it’s execution but visually arresting too. Tough call!

But In an age where our senses are continually assaulted, in all facets of life, maybe it’s time for directors to bring theatre back to its very basics. To remind us that the acting is what should be the focus (Lucas Stibbard comes to mind here where his solo efforts in Girl Boy Wall has recently revolutionised the theatre world- a minimalist approach where the acting is wholly and solely the focus. And it’s been an incredible success. Are audiences trying to tell us something?)

This is exactly what Sam Coward is trying to create here in his direction of Influence. A bold move but one that, essentially, works. I believe Williamson lends himself to this minimalist approach: he favours a haughty dialogue to get his message across and Coward has perceptively tapped into the potential Williamson presents.

Firstly, Coward dominates the stage space with his lead actors, positioning them at varying levels to visually communicate their status. Mark Darin as Ziggi naturally consumes the centre stage area and is encompassed by those characters that directly impact upon Ziggi’s life: Xanthe Coward as conceited wife Carmela reclines at stage right, Summer Bowen as the tempestuous daughter Vivienne broods upstage left, Ziggi’s “intelligent” sister Connie played by Jodie Bushby hovers downstate left and finally, Joe Jurisevic as Ziggi’s tortured father, Marko, sits upstage right. All of these lead actors remain in their designated stage positions for most of the performance, subtly adding to the rising tension within the play when not required in a scene. This is an effective tool, utilised by Coward to cleverly symbolise the ever-present “influences” in Ziggi’s life and, possibly, the sources of inspiration for Ziggi’s shock-jock material.

Building on his restricted stage positioning of the lead actors, Coward manipulates the dialogue delivery so that each actor directs it towards a point at the audience, and never at the intended recipient. When I was first privy to this interesting directorial choice, I’ll admit I was reticent. Familiar with the verbose nature of Williamson’s plays, I had my doubts as to whether Coward would maintain audience engagement. How can you possibly deliver close to 2 hours worth of dialogue with limited actor interaction and not bore your audience?  The answer is Sharon Grimley and Stephen Moore.

These 2 actors, playing the roles of Zehra and Tony respectively, are the glue that holds this show together, on so many levels. Not only do Zehra and Tony manage to keep the Blasko family unit functioning, but Grimley and Moore provide the smattering of character interaction that is needed to keep the performance from entering tedium. They offer a through line for the performance; a vehicle through which the remaining characters can connect, both in a physical and psychological way. It’s a well-calculated move from Coward and it is this very choice in direction that makes this production work for me. Of course, this directorial decision is only enhanced by a superb performance by Grimley.

Sharon Grimley is sublime in the role of Zehra: a Turkish, single mother of 3, struggling to make ends meet. When she takes on the role of housekeeper for the Blaskos, Zehra’s fate is almost sealed. As a woman who immigrated to Australia for a better life, who is humble yet not afraid to tell it how it is. You just know it’s going to get ugly when she plunges into the privileged and self-absorbed world of the Blaskos. Forced to endure the self-promoting and belittling manner of Carmela Blasko, the teenage angst of Vivienne and the incessant racist rants of Ziggi, Zehra’s tolerance wears thin and Williamson explores the idea of the instigation of deep hatred, on a global level, through this one, minor character. To me, this was going to be the most difficult role to play- the complexities of the issues Zehra faces present a real challenge but Grimley rises to it. Her posture and body language beautifully reflect the lower status Zehra with rolled shoulders and eyes that are constantly downcast. An almost apologetic demeanour effectively highlights the subservient nature of Grimley’s character, which successfully counteracts her use of the stronger downstage area.

Equally as impressive is Jurisevic in the role of Marko Blasko, Ziggi’s Croatian father. Jurisevic perfectly emulates an Eastern European passion with much chest beating and finger pointing to emphasise his more emotive dialogue. Enhancing this is Jurisevic’s use of a near perfect Croatian accent coupled with a hunched posture that juxtaposes his strong emotions with an aging body.

Whilst Grimley and Jurisevic are certainly the stand out performers for me, the remaining cast is also strong in their roles, with a few stumbles over lines being the only issue. Xanthe Coward epitomises the self absorbed, spoilt and conceited nature of Carmela Blasko; Summer Bowen is ridiculously talented at playing a bi-polar teenager (her fast dialogue delivery during a manic phase has to be seen to be believed!); Jodie Bushby is suitably controlled in the role of psychologist Connie and Stephen Moore oozes with frustrated subservience as Tony. But Sunshine Coast audiences will be most intrigued by the virgin stage performance of real life radio personality Mark Darin. And I am pleased to say that Darin gives a solid performance for someone with no prior acting experience. He translates his real life role of radio talk show host into this performance with a good use of voice and presence on stage. My only issue with Darin’s performance was the lack of facial expression and the reading of script when he is placed at his work desk within the radio station. However, if acting is something that Darin wishes to pursue from this point onwards, then I believe he will go from strength to strength, if placed in the right hands.

Overall, despite a few poor lighting choices and opening night nerves in some of the actors, I believe Coward has given a really professional edge to Noosa Arts production of Influence. If you appreciate the intricacies of David Williamson’s writing and you are interested by a clever re-working that favours acting over the spectacle of overelaborate sets and costumes, please, go and see this production.

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