The Motion of Light In Water


The Motion of Light in Water

La Boite Indie

La Boite Roundhouse Theatre

November 4 – 21 2015


Reviewed by Xanthe Coward 






“Science fiction isn’t just thinking about the world out there. It’s also thinking about how that world might be—a particularly important exercise for those who are oppressed, because if they’re going to change the world we live in, they—and all of us—have to be able to think about a world that works differently.”

Samuel R. Delany


About Hacker’s work, the poet Jan Heller Levi has said:

“I think of her magnificent virtuosity in the face of all the strictures to be silent, to name her fears and her desires, and in the process, to name ours. Let’s face it, no one writes about lust and lunch like Marilyn Hacker. No one can jump around in two, sometimes even three, languages and come up with poems that speak for those of us who sometimes barely think we can even communicate in one. And certainly no one has done more, particularly in the last decade of formalism, to demonstrate that form has nothing to do with formula. In villanelles, sestinas, and sonnets—not to mention a variety of forms whose names I can’t even pronounce—Marilyn Hacker can journey us on a single page through feelings as confusing as moral certainty to feelings as potentially empowering as unrequited passion.”




We know that anything penned by Marcel Dorney (Prehistoric, Fractions) is worth a look. The Motion of Light In Water, originally commissioned by Hothouse Theatre and Theatre Works, and inspired by Samuel Ray “Chip” Delany’s award winning speculative works and his memoir of the same name, is testament to Dorney’s intelligent approach to creating theatre that challenges and satisfies in equal measure.


The Motion of Light in Water is utterly surprising and affecting, highly intellectual and deeply challenging, and despite its slightly indulgent running time (110 minutes without interval), it’s incredibly entertaining. I come away from it wide-eyed, having never been a fan of Delany’s work or of science fiction generally and somehow overlooking, until now, Marilyn Hacker’s incredible writing. I know. HOW IS THAT POSSIBLE?


In this work, Dorney has captured a style of storytelling that feels genuinely new and fresh; it’s sci-fi manga live on stage. While it doesn’t purport to be a biopic or an adaptation of Delany’s groundbreaking Babel-17 there is so much truth to it, which comes at us – unforgivably – through a fictional account of events in the extraordinary ordinary lives of Delany and Hacker overlaid with the “what if…?” of Delany’s acclaimed books. It’s a work that William Gibson says, “captures the sense of courage and possibility that we took from these books, and the cultural and personal struggles that gave rise to them.”


The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.


Empire Star’s narrator, Jewel (Emily Tomlins), invites us to take a look inside the imagined world of Delany (Ray Chong-Nee) and Hacker (Olivia Monticciolo) as they live and love and work and fuck and rage right through the 60s and 70s, simultaneously taking us by the hand for a trip into the future. We find ourselves in front row seats at an intergalactic battle of epic proportions, the unlikely space crew fighting against evil, led by Babel-17’s protagonist, poet & captain of the craft, Rydra Wong (Ngoc Phan). The historical and futuristic aspects are cleverly interwoven, and while there’s possibly another play just in the intriguing Delany/Hacker relationship, it wouldn’t have the same impact without the intricacies (and complexity! And adventure!) of the other.


I love the straight-up, naturalistic approach to the NYC scenes, giving us insight into the challenges and delights of existing in 1960s and1970s America as a black bi-sexual man (and as an extraordinarily talented, tolerant, lesbian Jew not so much – Hacker is integral to the string of events but she plays a supporting role in this version of Delany’s story), and a bi-racial couple that brings between them for several weeks – what seems like a lifetime – a married, displaced man, who has the same basic needs and desires as their own (Tom Dent).


The more stylised futuristic scenes keep the dense text real for those of us who may be familiar with Tolkien’s imagined ancient tongue and Orwell’s “newspeak” but not with the brilliantly created codes of the future, which in this case have the power to destroy humankind. Within both plots we get our past, present and possible future, with vibrant discussion on social norms, political constraints, three-person parties and linguistic relativity (that language determines our perception of reality), however; during the final discourse it seems to take an exorbitantly long time for Captain Wong and The Butcher (Tom Dent) to satisfactorily explore the notion of empathy. There is lovely comedy in it, but it’s at this point that we begin to get restless…


The context changes but the rhetoric remains the same.

– Samuel Ray “Chip” Delany


In the role of Delany Ray Chong-Nee has been given room to create a delightfully disarming character that we immediately adore, and with whom it’s easy to empathise. His embodiment of this quirky, incredibly brilliant man is captivating. When I read interviews with the actual Delany I can imagine he’d be pretty chuffed with Chong-Nee’s work in this production. In fact, I like to think that he and Hacker would be as intrigued and as entertained as I am by this production. (Professor Delany gets a thank you in the program for his generosity, support and insight during the process).


Dorney’s direction is careful, as precise as his language is; he’s so attentive to the quieter moments, which are vital if we are to process the complexities of the storytelling, and at the same time, with gusto and mischief, he plays with the physicality of the actors, their bodies in the space, and the more technical elements of the louder, brighter, comic book bits. All the elements come together magnificently – comically, boldly – for example, when Captain Wong takes control of the space battle in a Wii styled solo effort to save the world. (AV Designer Andre Vanderwer, Lighting Designer Kris Chainey and Composition & Sound Design THE SWEATS). Only it’s taken the power and navigational skills of the crew to get her there. In the fine tradition of Romeo and Juliet and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, this bizarre meeting of minds and bodily bits required to power the spacecraft happens symbolically (or really, this way, in the future. What if…?), as hands meet and move as one. All of this within the cold confines of an austere set designed by Matthew Adey, which serves as the spacecraft as well as separating various city spaces. Zoe Rouse has rejigged the costumes since the original Melbourne run and may need to rethink the ill-fitting futuristic white leggings here, which simply detract from the overall aesthetic and keep us, unfortunately, squarely in “indie” theatre territory. The current obsession with awesome looking active wear, which relies on superior textiles and advanced technology to lift and shape and flatter, means it’s just not plausible that such a style crime would be committed by anyone in authority in the future.


The Motion of Light In Water is Dorney’s most detailed and entertaining work to date, exploding with vivid reflections on the darkest, most threatening aspects of life and love and power, and at the same time tenderly embracing and celebrating the best of every day. This is a play that will itself be embraced and celebrated by audiences who are craving all the feels and something more to think about.


Between us on our wide bed we cuddle an incubus

whom we have filled with voyages. We wake

more apart than before, with open hands.

Your stomach and head begin to ache.

We cannot work. You are in pain. I cry.

The Navigators, Marilyn Hacker



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