Frogman is fascinating theatre that combines virtual reality and live theatre to investigate an old tragedy, says First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee
Curious Directive is a very cool production company. Based in Norwich, UK, these artists work with science communities and technology partners to collaborate, create and perform what they refer to as “layered, emotionally charged science-led theatre.”[i]
According to their artistic director Jack Lowe, “science is everything. It’s part of the cultural DNA of people who are interested in everything.” [ii] They worked with anaesthetists for their production Your Last Breath (2013), and studied myrmecology (the study of ants) for After the Rainfall (2012). In 2013 they put the audience in the back of an ambulance to show 12 hours as a paramedic in The Kindness of Strangers (2013-2014). During the conception of Frogman, the company worked with coral reef scientist Jamie Craggs to ensure the accuracy of the Australian reefs they were writing about.
The term “frogman” is defined by the Cambridge Dictionary as someone who swims or works underwater wearing breathing equipment, flippers (rubber or plastic shoes that are longer than the feet), and usually a rubber suit: police frogmen. You have probably seen these divers on the news, searching for remains or evidence in rivers, lakes, the ocean. In this play, we’re introduced to Queensland Police frogmen diving on the Great Barrier Reef in 1995. They’re searching through a beautiful coral crime scene for the remains of Ashleigh Richardson, a missing 13-year-old girl.
Before the audience is ushered into the Theatre Works space, we’re given a quick tutorial by a VR technician. We are instructed how to put on the headphones and the VR headset that we’ll be occasionally asked to don throughout the show. We’re also asked to place our bags to the side of the room, as they will hinder the movement of our swivel chairs when we turn to look at the world captured in our headsets.
The chairs are lined up along the narrow, catwalk-like stage. It’s covered with shaggy cream-coloured carpet that later works as a magnificent reflector when lighting the performer. Computer monitor border the edge of the stage every couple of meters, facing the audience, there to tell us when we’re required to put on our VR headsets.
There is only one performer on stage. Georgina Strawson plays Meera Clarke, a woman who is being questioned over the death of her childhood friend Richardson, who went missing 13 years earlier. The police officer questioning her, DCI Fiona Webb (Sarah Woodward) is represented by a tape recorder placed on a chair that has a jacket draped over it, and a voice we hear through our headphones.
The voice acting is perfect: Woodward’s authoritative nature dominates the space. Strawson, as the sole live performer, is very strong. Sometimes during the first 10 minutes of a show, it feels very much like “now we’re acting”; there’s an over-emphasis on enunciation, movement and so on. Strawson never feels like this: she’s simply a woman being interviewed about something her child brain couldn’t quite comprehend. The vulnerability and authenticity of her character upstage all the VR technology.
Camilla Clarke’s VR design, with cinematography by Jack Lowe, is interesting. Once the headsets are on, we are shown an eight-minute snippet of story, then a notification alerting us that it’s time to remove our headset. The Queensland Police letterhead make it seem as if we are viewing these segments of video as potential jurors or further investigators.
I felt that at times the VR element of this show is not used as well as it could have been. It’s really effective when we’re frogmen in the water, searching for Ashleigh’s body or any indication that she was in the area. At other times we are in 11-year-old Meera’s (played by Ava Ryan) room, hanging out with her friends Lily (Indiah Morris), Shaun (Sol Costanho), sometimes Ashleigh herself (Milla Webb). We put together fragments of the story from each of their perspectives. The 360 degree view of the room does feel as we are there, but these particular scenes fall victim to cliched moments, often through unnecessary character montages. And I’m not sure, anyway, that they work especially well as VR scenes.
The young performers playing portraying Meera and her friends around the time of Ashleigh’s disappearance in 1995 are all strong performers, and despite the occasional stumble establish character dynamics and narrative. But the music (Theo Whitworth) that adorns these montages oozes sentimentality, which I think is intended to illustrate childlike innocence and a sanctuary from the tragic conflicts between quarrelling families brought upon by the death of Meera’s mother.
Ashleigh is the only character who actively tries to revolt against the upbringing that has defined her, through her fantastical stories and disregard for a world set on rejecting her. Strawson’s heartbreaking final scene shows that, even in her adulthood, Meera clings to the stories her missing friend had told her, which are the only things she remembers of a tragedy that fractured her memories of her mother before she died.
Frogman reminded me that, if we don’t have the time and space we need to heal, intergenerational trauma can force history to repeat itself in horrific ways. It can steal us from our loved ones, and it can make us do terrible things to one another, all in the name of grief.
Frogman, written Jack Lowe and Russell Woodhead, directed by Jack Lowe, design (VR world and stage design) by Camilla Clarke, composition by Theo Whitworth, sound by Pete Malkin. Performed (live) by Georgina Strawson. Performed (VR) by Ava Ryan, Indiah Morris, Sol Costanho, Milla Webb. Performed (Voice) by Sarah Woodward, Johnny Flynn, Anna Procter, Kate Shenton, Russell Woodhead. Theatre Works, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 15. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event