There have been four major theatre premieres in Adelaide this week, three of them one person offerings. Shore Break shines brightly among these as an exquisite work of theatre written and performed by Chris Pitman, an actor who is utterly spellbinding as he inhabits a character existing on the edges of society.
The audience is ushered onto the stage of the Goodwood Theatre, seated upstage and facing a simple set with the black void of the silenced, empty auditorium behind the already present character. The un-named protagonist sits in an ordinary, well-used camp chair. He has an air of troubled abandonment about him, slouched and staring into space but clutching a surfboard, one end propped on the sisal mat denoting a sandy landscape. As the story unfolds, we are taken into this person’s confidence, a funny, slightly uncomfortable but compelling intimacy you might encounter with, for instance, a fascinating stranger on a train. For just a short span of time you and the teller of the story enter into a contract of attentiveness - not difficult when an actor of Pitman’s calibre is the teller.
Using some marvellously Australian but never overdone patois and a glittering array of curse words, this character allows us glimpses into his past and present: from unfulfilling, love-starved childhood and school days where he stared more at the cloud formations outside the classroom, to a drifter’s adulthood, short-lived relationship, and isolation of various sorts. After his father unexpectedly initiated a trip to the seaside (his ever-present ‘long neck’ beers in tow), the over-arching presence and influence of the sea, surf, beach, and sky became his safe point, his escape, his refuge. Pitman eloquently describes the physical and emotional landscape of this character, not just with words and perfect emotional inflection, but with an assured, subtle but telling gaze and a connected, relevant physicality.
Pitman inhabits his character fully as we learn about the array of human encounters he has experienced. There are also subtle moments of imitation: his mother, father, a friend, a lover, ‘yuppie’ urban intruders. These perceptive moments are understated but entirely and vividly clear, the audience appreciating the comedic nature of the instant but our focus soon pulled into line, back to an air of slight discomfort as further less than funny revelations are shared.
The other visceral element of this character’s existence is his bond with nature and natural extremes. Pitman weaves a picture of battering surf, violent wind, and the desolation he undergoes when tragically removed from his idyllic surrounds - all with the absence of any sound effects. It is rare to behold an actor with such interconnected and focussed command of language, emotion, and physical presence; simply able to ‘be’, in the moment, in the character, and never over-working the material.
The empathic director, Chelsea Griffiths, has obviously worked intensely and successfully with Pitman to hone this one-hander. The art of inserting silence and pauses of optimal length within a play is notoriously difficult to master but in Shore Break, the power of such devices is undeniable and only adds to the impact. Choice of staging and elegantly simple lighting state is ingenious. Placing the actor against the deep black space of the auditorium, rather than curtaining and enclosing the area, adds to the atmosphere of isolation that is alternately comforting or fearsome. The audience is also quite close to the actor, increasing the intimacy and impact of this intense, enthralling work.
It is not only Pitman’s magnificent performance that has impact. The quality of his writing is impeccable, awe-inspiring even. There are a multitude of rhythms here, from liltingly poetic to the staggered beat of a man trying to articulate and understand his deepest, discontented thoughts. Additionally, the emotional and comedic contrasts are clear and beautifully shaped into the flow of text, gifting the audience access to the intimate journey that it is. The choice of expressing rage as a fierce but silent, heart-breaking howl to the sky was just one instance of many deeply affecting moments that combine to elevate Shore Break to greatness.
It is with utter conviction that I urge you to see this work. I also sincerely hope that Shore Break has the opportunity to tour elsewhere in Australia. Both the work and the performer deserve every accolade.
Photographer: Shane Reid