QPAC & shake & stir
QPAC Cremorne Theatre
October 5 – 15 2016
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
Tequila Mockingbird is an uppercut, flattening us and leaving us stunned.
Despite their humble claim (“shake & stir is one of Australia’s leading contemporary theatre companies”), this team could surely be viewed now as the creme of the crop, creating new, urgent theatre with a focus on the way their results can be used in an educational setting. The emphasis on the ways in which teachers and students can look to the themes and nature of the work to better understand themselves and their world, and the company’s commitment to training and touring has set them apart, and continues to put them far ahead of so many others.
In stark contrast to most of the theatre on our stages, Tequila Mockingbird delves deeply and honestly into the small town psyche, with unsurprisingly disturbing results. I consider Nelle Lee’s text, inspired by Nelle Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird to be shake & stir’s best work to date. This return season is slicker and more grounded than the first, and on the strength of its universal truths, even more confronting and challenging, with its roots planted firmly in our local Australian soil, in our own backyard.
Tequila Mockingbird holds a mirror up to society like no other production has dared to do. Its worth goes well beyond its two sell-out Brisbane seasons, its Queensland touring schedule and its possible inclusion in our curriculum. This is a show that forces us to take a good hard look at ourselves and make a decision about how we’ll get on with our lives.
Relationships develop because people exist together in the same space. In this case, they are shackled together in the dilapidated, rather desperate outback town of Stanton. Far from Sydney’s hustle, though not so different from anywhere else, Stanton is home to some of the most appalling people on the planet.
Lee’s incredible (incredibly close to home) story, doesn’t shy away from the big issues, in fact, it brings our attention to a number of them: communication, connection, alcoholism, domestic violence, ignorance, fear, the judicial system, the medical system and racism. Director, Michael Futcher’s craftsmanship and careful attention to detail is unmatched in Queensland, and we’re lucky he chooses to play here. His high calibre cast is unparalleled in their focus, their connection with one another and their authentic characterisations, all neatly fitting together; disparate pieces of a puzzle we don’t really want to see completed. It’s too frightening, too confronting. But like a fatality on the freeway we can’t look away…nor should we. The unfair treatment of an individual based on his cultural background, and another’s treatment based on her gender, demands a critical conversation, one that must not be silenced.
Ross Balbuziente, in his most electrifying performance to date, slithers out of the primordial mud to become a truly sickening monster of a man, both detestable and dangerous. His depression, alcoholism and violence, his dependence on a mother who comes from an even darker place, his irrational mistrust of the girlfriend, the mate and then the newcomer, all underpinned by a distinct lack of intelligence and respect for the human race, is a revelation, leaving an indelible mark on this story and this audience. In complete contrast to this vile character, Balbuziente completely embodies a bored teen prankster who steals and smokes and drinks and planks and Snapchats. (The updated references are typically shake & stir: current, clever and comical, just when a laugh is what’s needed most.) Likewise, Nick Skubij, offers nicely contrasting characters. Skubij is both Dan, a down and out without-an-opinion everyday drinker in the pub, and Marty, the teen who’s messed up in Sydney and been brought to Stanton by his father in order to stay out of trouble and get his act together.
As Marty’s father, Richard, Bryan Probets brings a solid, more grounded guy to the story, more the father than the lawyer this time, his empathy and tenderness more expertly applied across both roles so that when he speaks on behalf of the Defendant (the court scene is handled exceptionally well, its impact more powerful than before), it could just as easily be his son in the stand. The parent-child relationship explored here is no cliche and the connection between the two is tangible. Their deeper connection and closure in the final moments of the play feels real, bringing tears to the eyes of the actors and opening night audience members.
Nelle Lee’s Rachel clatters into the story, a damaged woman of satin not silk standards, a disturbing juxtaposition against her secondary character, the teenager, Mel, whom we see indulging in – and purging herself of – a little too much of something mixed with Malibu. (There’s a lovely George’s Marvellous Medicine moment as we hear what’s gone into the nauseating concoction). Lee brings a new level of maturity to the role of Rachel, a previously untapped depth and strength, giving us a gleeful young girl long lost beneath the ink and unsmiling tough-chic exterior, as well as a glimpse of the older, wiser, sadder woman of days to come; we see the before and after shots of a tragic heroine. Sadly, we can guess her end.
Bringing to life the three older women, none of them any the wiser from their experiences but all of them understandably downtrodden, is Barbara Lowing (Karen / Sue / Trish). Lowing gives us three very different characters (we overheard after the show debate about whether or not there had been additional, uncredited actors on stage in these roles), and what she gives in each one of them is a gift to audiences. We see her heartfelt, powerful realisation of people who live in a world of loneliness, existing to serve others but unable to help themselves, and those who dwell in their own world of devastating pain, who must transfer their guilt and grief and anger and humiliation onto others in order to feel better about themselves. Most disturbingly, we see in Trish the lowest of the low; she represents the most unintelligent, hateful and spiteful among us, and the cycle of violence that too often passes from parent to child. In these desperate people we see the whole story.
Shannon Haeglar also brings something more to this retelling; as the OTD he is unflinching, and undeserving of his fate, but Haeglar has discovered a lighter quality now, and a lovely, genuine concern for Rachel, whose assault he is framed and blamed for. The connection between these two is manipulated keenly, beautifully, subtly complicating issues, and at times we’re not sure whose story we should believe.
The imposing abstract design (Josh McIntosh) places us squarely in the confines of the collective psyche, and the combination of Jason Glenwright’s lighting and Guy Webster’s sound design constrains us, challenges us and directs our attention to the finer detail, assisting with an efficient, highly effective denouement, the very definition of rising tension.
More shocking than you remember and more relevant than ever, shake & stir’s Tequila Mockingbird is the most powerful must-see, must-talk-about theatrical production of the year.