The Duel, Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company and ThinIce; adapted by Tom Wright from The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky; June 9-20, 2009; www.sydneytheatre.com.au; June 26-July 11 PICA, Perth Cultural Centre, Northbridge, WA, www.pica.org.au
ThinIce is a spunky experimental outfit from Perth which is now an “Associate Company of STC until 2011.” It’s obviously thrilling for the ThinIce creatives – as director Matt Lutton made clear on opening night at Wharf 2 – but it’s equally thrilling for Sydney. We know more about what’s going on in London and on Broadway than we do about the other side of the Wide Brown and the arrival on the east coast of ThinIce highlights how ridiculous that is.
This first collaboration with theatrical behemoth STC is at once modest and ambitious. The Duel is an adaptation by Tom Wright, at Dutton’s instigation, of chapter six of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.
To save you rushing off to the library, chapter six is the one – almost self-contained in Dutton’s view – that explores guilt and its corrosive effect on a human being; and the late-blooming effects of last minute honour. If this sounds a little puzzling then fear not: this piece is not about literal meaning; perhaps not about meaning at all, in the conventional sense. It’s pure story-telling and utterly compelling.
As Zosima, a merry and charming debauchee, Luke Mullins is radiant and compelling in his journey from carefree larrikin through pain, lost love and doubt to profound and close to inexplicable change. Inexplicable that is, if the idea of honour is alien to one’s experience.
Observing him – and us in the unusually brightly lit auditorium – is a “mysterious stranger” (Brian Lipson). He seems jocular enough, in a dorky sort of way, but what is slowly revealed – or imagined – is a much darker character, or story, that makes the waggish chap even more sinister and unsettling.
At once integral and peripheral to the action are two debutantes to Sydney’s stage life: David Lee Smyth as The Actor and Renee McIntosh as a sinuous female presence who is both the observer and the observed. Online habitues will recall Lee Smyth’s sexy-cute Irishness from a series of irresistible ‘net ads, and he’s as yumptious in person as he is on-screen. The same can be said of Renee McIntosh – both bring an elliptical and engaging element to the play and are magnetic individual presences.
The action is tightly contained in a claustrophobic “room” that has one window, no door and a lot of harsh strip lighting (set design by Claude Marcos). The fourth wall – us – is not really about the audience, but neither is it a passive thing because the customary darkness is cancelled out by relatively bright and unsettling illumination. Various scenes and moments are also lit in extremely subtle ways and, all in all, it’s a tour de force job by Damien Cooper.
A significant part of the disjointed and always disturbing action is the use of sound and music , designed by Kingsley Reeve and carried out, via various CDs and tapes, by the cast. Like everything else in the piece, it’s impossible to know whether the music is imagined, real, remembered or lost. Either way, it’s another powerful tool in the storytelling.
The adaptation and telling of the dreamlike nightmare suffered by the two main characters maintains the integrity of Dostoevsky’s language and meaning, while recognising that a work for theatre also has its own discrete existence. Coming so soon after the acclaimed but (to me) dismal Gatz (review here on StageNoise), The Duel is an exhilarating, honest, no bullshit, truly experimental and ultimately successful experience.