Eternity Playhouse, April 4, until April 22
Dehumanising them was the political masterstroke. If the people rotting in offshore detention had no names and no stories, how could we begin to care about them? Depoliticising her play was Mary Anne Butler’s masterstroke. Had her protagonist, Hamed Mokri, been subjected to offshore “processing” as an end-point The Sound of Waiting would have been just another polarising – rather than unifying – force.
That’s not say that theatre should never dare to divide audiences. But on this particular issue the battle lines have been drawn for two decades, and another dose of didacticism was hardly going to shiver either sides’ defences.
Butler has Mokri (Reza Momenzada) forced to flee an unnamed, war-torn land with his baby daughter in his arms, having seen his wife and son die brutal deaths. An escape, a checkpoint, tension, release, a flight, Indonesia, people-smugglers, a boat, a failed motor, a storm: no sides, you see? Just a variant on thousands of other stories made to pulse with truth and tragedy.
Being almost entirely expositional it is also a considerable challenge for an actor and a director, and Momenzada rises to this challenge with mounting and affecting intensity under the direction of Suzanne Pereira (for Darlinghurst Theatre Company).
Although odd to suggest a work lasting only an hour needed cutting, this could have eliminated Butler’s dubious solution to making Mokri’s story more “theatrical”. She hatched a second character, the Angel of Death (Gabrielle Scawthorn), assigned to stop Mokri reaching his destination. Putting all thoughts of allegory back in the box where (presumably) they belong, this merely distracts us dilutes the main event.
In a brave effort to engineer her device’s success Butler layers her text with a poeticism that is by turns laboured, lighter than air, self-conscious and dense with poignancy. This very inconsistency is another distraction. We want to take flight on these words, not be jarred by them. Whereas Momenzada mostly makes the heightened language credible, Scawthorn seems either confused or half-hearted, so she skates over the surface of words that needed to be mined to their core or discarded altogether. Towards the end she, too, intensifies her performance commendably, and imaginative contributions of Samuel James (projections) and Tegan Nicholls (soundscapes) immensely enhance the experience, but they do not quite save the play from its own Angel of Death.