CARESS/ACHE, Griffin Theatre Company at the SBW Stables Theatre, 4 March-11 April 2015. Photography by Brett Boardman.
Suzie Miller’s new play opens in a pristine, white-tiled space – a hospital operating theatre – as a series of words are silently thrown onto the wall: “Human skin and tissues contain millions of sensory perceptors. Without them, there would be no capacity for people to sense the touch of another.”
So matter of fact, so impersonal, so simply factual, yet all of life as we know and value it are contained within that short statement and dehumanised by the surrounds. (Excellent design: Sophie Fletcher and lighting: Matthew Marshall.) There is possibly nothing more personal and important to life than the touch and feel of human skin yet unless we accidentally cut it, burn it or slap on a costly lotion, most of us don’t think much about it. Skin just is. Nevertheless, the play’s title – Caress/Ache – suggests that the playwright has thought a lot about skin in the writing of it.
Skin and the touching of it is central to life and relationships, either in its absence or its many meanings. Yet in a series of intertwined but largely unrelated stories, Miller explores how different these relationships and meanings can be, depending on the circumstances and viewpoint.
Mark, a successful surgeon (Ian Stenlake) holds a baby’s heart in his fingers, delicately massaging it, desperately willing the child to live; two young women – Belinda and Cate – (Zoe Carides and Sabrina Te’o) talk the touch as phone sex operators while remaining entirely untouched. A pair of young marrieds, Saskia and Cameron, (Helen Christinson and Gary Clementson) arrive at the outer reaches of isolation from touch through lies and sexual betrayal.
Roles are doubled in this economical production and Zoe Carides is also Alice, the beaten down mother of a young man, Peter (Gary Clementson) condemned to death in Singapore for drug smuggling. There to see him before his execution, she discovers she will not be allowed to hug him one last time – a fact under Singaporean law and something the families of Chan and Sukumaran are now also finding out.
Peter asks the Foreign Affairs rep Adam (Ian Stenlake) whether he will take a hug from him to give to his mother and the upright yet decent official tells him he cannot. A young Iranian-Australian woman Arezu – meaning “hope” – (Sabrina Te’o) yearns to discover the meaning of her origins: far from a place where she cannot feel.
It is at this point that the tangible pain and importance of touch and skin to human beings become vivid. Images and ideas flash through the mind: the orphans of Ceausescu’s Romania were sent mad before reaching school-age because no one ever touched them – other than unkindly – and something similar is happening now, in our name, in the Pacific island gulags. Our lives are contained and maintained by our skin – and the feelings generated by it.
Another startling series of words on the wall: “Skin receptors respond immediately to touch, warmth and cold, but pain receptors are the most numerous. Every square centimetre of skin contains two receptors for cold, and one for warmth, but over two hundred receptors for pain.” Suddenly the simple torture of deprivation makes so much terrible sense.
Director Anthony Skuse appears to have sensed that in the poetry and free-ranging language of the play, Miller is both exploring and encouraging the free flow of imagination and personal scrutiny rather than tying down absolutes. Skuse draws similarly rarified performances from his actors; although often earthbound in conflict and pain, they float in the whiteness and light, upheld by an almost continuous and occasionally luscious soundscape (Nate Edmondson, composer/designer).
Caress/Ache had its beginnings – the germ of an idea – in 2005 and the hanging of young Australian Van Tuong Nguyen. From the weirdly benign barbarity of his mother being simply forbidden to touch him the playwright began to extrapolate: humanity, touch, pain, skin, pleasure; the real and the imaginary, the precious and the petty. The result is a play whose premiere production – coinciding with the equally weird and barbaric judicial rituals currently underway in Bali – is quietly aflame. It is almost impossible to feel anything sensible or familiar in these circumstances and the numbness experienced and witnessed at various moments by the characters of the play are reflected in the audience. A compelling, fascinating and troubling work by playwright, director and cast alike.