I always think that attending the opening night of a new production company is like attending a wedding- there is so much to celebrate- and usually alot of food- and it is an honour to be included on the guest list as those who were there to witness the start of something grand. The commitment these artists have to enquiry and into their practice- and to each other- and to making work- and to providing the audience with a catalyst for thought and reaction is, of course something I am a huge believer in. On this occasion the new company is “A Bit On the Side Productions”- the brainchild of two emerging artists- Felicity Nicol and Carolyn Eccles.

This is not so much a formal review- more of a response to the works. As always I feel it right and proper to declare my relationship with this troupe- I first met Felicity in 2007- and we have worked together in several capacities- once she directed a play I had written called “Nest” (now “Between the Nest and the Sky”) and had worked with me as my assistant director on Hilary Bell’s “Wolf Lullaby” and a director for the inaugural year of Brand Spanking New in 2008. I have seen alot of her script-based work and I have also been aware of her not-necessarilly-script based work through her self devised training program: “Mudlove”. Carolyn Eccles I have met through Felicity several times and have seen her work at UNSW- but had previously I had not seen her writing/directing work- so “Lot’s Wife” was a new experience for me.

Twelve years ago, on the opposite side of the world, Sarah Kane’s Crave premiered at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. It is the second last play Kane wrote and when it premiered, it was presented under the pseudonym of Marie Kelvedon… Kane’s reputation had been well established by 1998 through her earlier plays Skin, Blasted, Phaedras Love and Cleansed and was thought to perhaps be a hinderance to the reception of the play. The script itself is without stage directions, with four characters described only as “C”, “M”, “B” and “A”… no explicit gender- or age. No straightforward narrative. No description of place or time. It is a tightly knotted string of sentiments about love, lust, yearning, desire. It is a beautiful piece of writing- poetic, desperately tender, at times utterly shocking, occasionally funny and confrontingly honest. The stage becomes a public confessional where all the secret mutterings/murmurs of the heart inexorably stream out – unable to be denied, avoided or shunned.

Two banks of seats are butterflied towards the corner of the space. Four street lamps hang their weary heads over a pile of hard rubbish. Line markings of a road streak off into the back doorway. We, the audience are oncoming traffic- we are peering with our white rimmed headlight eyes into the darkness. Four people scuff and twitch in the preset state. An elegant static hum teeters between the speakers- the lights blink- curls of smoke slip silently from an actors lips to the glare of the light.

Designers Pia Leong (set), Lucy Thornett (costume), Joseph Dutallis (sound) and Teegan Lee (lighting) have created a bleak world for Crave- a world filled with the desperate and the tattered and the discarded. The actors are dressed as beggars on the street of love- tatty and torn- in oversized coats smudged with dirt and ash. The actors themselves, Amanda Stephens-Lee, Richard Hilliar, Rebecca Wood and Maurizio Degliesposti are completely committed in every action, and have been thoroughly rehearsed- this is a tightly focused production- and there is much to admire in Nicol’s production of Crave. However, I found myself withdrawing from the characters- recoiling from them- though the design was coherent and taut- I wondered if this design was leading the theme too much- “gilding the lily” so to speak. Love makes us beggars. Yes I agree. At times. But making the actors into literal beggars/homeless people/mad people – is for me, quite an over the top reading of the play. Love is the universal theme- rejection is also a universal theme. Locating these ideas in a design context of fringe dwellers changed my relationship to the actors. I was not emotionally moved watching this production- I could appreciate many aspects of it’s slickness and the ideas- but the heart of the piece – the lines that when I have read them that make me choke and my eyes fog with tears- were lost to me. Perhaps this Verfremdungseffekt was what Nicol was hoping for?

After the interval- we re-enter for Carolyn Eccles’ Lot’s Wife. Headless manaquins stand slumped around the space- strings of laundry- a small gazebo- a bathtub- a vein of sand covers the line markings of Crave’s set- the seating fanned out to an end stage- both levels of the space are used- a change of light. A change of tone. Eccles has put all her influences on show- her love of comedy and improvisation, her physical training with Zen Zen Zo, Suzuki, Viewpoints and Butoh.

The cast- consisting of Emily Watson, Jacob Thomas, Lucas Connolly, Julian Wong and Lara Lightfoot are experienced and dedicated performers hailing from a range of training institutions and their skill set covers a range of performance styles. The story of Lot’s Wife is one centred around obedience of women – however in Eccles’ synopsis the focus has been repositioned to that of “stagnancy.” The Bible story tells of a defiance- or a curiosity which is her downfall- this telling seems to be about “stubborness.” There are alot of ideas based on stubborness, repetition- being stuck… but not that of rebellion. So for me, I was a little lost at times understanding the plot points of the story- was I to take this as a re-telling of the story with the focus on stagnancy? Or was this a story inspired by a story- but the arrival point does not need to reference the departure point?

All in all- this is an interesting night at the theatre- a brave and bold presentation of work by some of Sydney’s most robust, focussed and dedicated emerging artists. My hope is that A Bit on The Side Productions develop their confidence as artists- that they always produce work that interests and inspires them- and which offers new perspectives to audiences. I look forward to their next production- with eager anticipation.