THE CHILDREN, Sydney Theatre Company and Melbourne Theatre Company at the DramaTheatre, Sydney Opera House, 3 April-19 May 2018. Photography by Jeff Busby: above and below - Sarah Pierse and Pamela Rabe, and William Zappa
After the sprawling, global kaleidoscope of Chimerica in 2017, STC returns to the ever-expanding Lucy Kirkwood canon and an intimate three-hander. Except that The Children is a play of huge themes, profound questions and grave implications and thus, is typically Kirkwood.
On the face of it the story is simple enough. Hazel (Pamela Rabe) is a recently retired nuclear physicist. She lives in a cottage by the sea and not far from the nuclear power station where she and her husband Robin (William Zappa) used to work. Alone in her kitchen one day, Hazel is startled by an unexpected visitor. Rose (Sarah Peirse) is an engineer, one-time work colleague and old friend. She moved to the US years ago and the three haven’t been together in decades.
The connection between the two women is fractious yet strong, there seems to be a current of resentful affection beneath Hazel’s salad-chopping irritation and Rose’s peppery demeanour. The result, for the audience is much laughter as the women Rubik’s Cube each other: never quite managing to manoeuvre or present a perfect face.
Designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, lit by Paul Jackson with Steve Francis’s sound design and composition, the plain, weatherboard cottage kitchen, with French doors opening towards the whoosh and boom of breakers is a comfortably set up, homely room. But it’s not quite right. There are many boxes of candles on a shelf, candles are stuck in wine bottles ready to light and placed around the room; there is a small fridge but Hazel keeps perishables in a cooler box on top of it. Water flows from the sink tap, but she drinks and uses water from a series of large bottles also stored on top of the fridge. This ordinary place and the lives going on within it are awry. And the reasons are bound up in the power station and events that Hazel describes to Rose.
At some time in the recent past, there was an earthquake followed by a tsunami and the power station was flooded, badly damaged and shut down. The radiation zone has rendered their old home and small farm uninhabitable; people have died, others have moved away; life has been hopelessly disrupted, electricity is rationed at best and otherwise unpredictable. Hazel has a wind-up radio.
Every day Robin goes back to their old place to feed the cows – miraculous survivors of both inundation and nuclear fallout, he tells her. Their four adult children live elsewhere and their relationship with the eldest daughter is almost as toxic as their surroundings.
It gradually becomes apparent that Rose’s low-key sophistication and globetrotting, multi-relationships life adds to Hazel’s not-quite-passive resentment. When Robin returns and opens a bottle of his lethal parsnip wine, the tension can be measured on the Geiger counter kept on the dresser with other kitchen utensils.
The 2011 disaster of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant – and its aftermath for the surviving population – lodged in Kirkwood’s imagination. It slowly percolated through her mind and picked up other ideas and elements along the way. It’s emerged as a human and humane tragicomedy whose twists and turns are rarely telegraphed in advance.
What happens between the three as the layers of their collective and individual relationships are peeled back has as much to do with present circumstances and their environment as anything more personal or of the past. Under director Sarah Goodes’ confident hand, the pictures painted of and by the trio are a disconcerting cross between a Monet pastorale and Munch’s “The Scream”.
While maintaining a gallant facade of normalcy with daily yoga and remnants of civil behaviour – offering tea and a biscuit to her visitor – Pamela Rabe’s Hazel is as internally dangerous as the catastrophe she describes. The way she slices a loaf of bread would make most people resolve never to turn their backs on her, yet she is in such emotionally-reduced straits it’s surprising that she’s the one who doesn’t bleed.
As Rose, Sarah Pierse is also a dangerous presence, but for very different reasons. Neither she nor Robin realise that Hazel knows of their long ago affair; and neither is she completely sure of her own mixed motives in returning – does she want to pick up where they left off? Pierse is a mistress of the understated detail and both she and Rabe are magnetic to watch in their delicately, awkwardly fierce yet touching interplay.
William Zappa has the monumental task of entering and holding his ground in what is in many ways the world of the two women. He does it beautifully by neither wilting nor attempting to dominate but intelligently and effectively anchoring the triangle in something like the everyday. Except of course, this everyday will never be everyday again and they all know it.
The actual reality that faces them is brought by Rose: her proposal is the true catalyst and if the audience doesn’t leave the theatre after two mainly riveting hours full of questions for self and life, then no one’s been listening. It’s engrossing, disturbing, funny and nightmarish. Recommended!