The title Love could be a little misleading. This is not a romantic play, at least not in a traditional sense. But anyone who knows the work of Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius would not be surprised: Love is confronting, unforgiving and very powerful. It shines a light on a world we rarely see.
Cornelius has in recent years had new works staged by Melbourne Theatre Company and the State Theatre Company in South Australia after being largely ignored by the big theatre companies for decades. But she was never one to complain, insisting that all she cared about was creating visceral, unyielding works. She shocks the audience out of complacency and to think deeply about the life and people outside our doors.
The characters here inhabit the periphery of mainstream society and are often ignored. Tanya (Anna Samson) is in deep love with Annie (Rose Riley) - she won’t stop telling her so and marvelling at her stunning looks. But she also won’t let her touch her sexually and is happy to exploit her continuously - selling her as a prostitute. Love is about their love and another one as well - that between Annie and Lorenzo (Hoa Xuande). Through this three-sided relationship, the play explores what it takes to survive in a world of outcasts, desperate for their next drug hit. It is an unyielding look at addiction and manipulation.
The play was first staged in 2005 and seems to have a slightly refocused resonance now, as we talk more openly about the treatment of women in the age of #metoo. Director Rachel Chant has created a simple, stark world, where the characters’ words and actions are all that matters. Ella Butler’s design is superb - lights, railings and a bench on a functional but evocative stage. We get a strange sense of place, where the world doesn’t provide much for these people and all they can do is interact with each other as best they know how.
The three actors are brilliant. Their portrayals of drug-induced desperation are faultless and yet they make these characters endearing, perhaps even likeable. They pay the text the utmost respect.
In what I’ve read and heard, Cornelius doesn’t talk much about being Australian or having an Australian voice. She just writes about our world and that’s an Australian one by default. Her work feels universal and outward-looking rather than introspective.
It’s a voice that’s rightfully cherished and it’s wonderful to hear it here, staged with such compassion in a fine production. It’s not a fun night at the theatre but a powerful one that’ll make you think twice about the way we treat each other.
Photographer: Robert Catto.