Despite stellar artists, The Audition at La Mama thins out and ultimately goes nowhere, says Robert Reid
Given the calibre of some of the artists involved, The Audition is a surprisingly lacklustre outcome. Presented by Outer Urban Projects and La Mama, it weaves together new short works by Patricia Cornelius, Tes Lyssiotis, Sahra Davoudi, Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Reeves, Milad Norouzi and Wahibe Moussa to examine the plight of asylum seekers in Australia.
Under the direction of Irine Vela, these are some of the leading artists in the country, collaborating in a way that is familiar to many of them from their work on Who’s Afraid of the Working Class and, more recently, on Anthem for the Melbourne Festival.
Yet The Audition is ponderous and heavy. Its rhythm is set at the beginning and remains unchanged until the end. A resolute tread ploughs on with no up or down: everything is pitched at the same level of solemnity. Of course the subject matter is heavy, mournful and shameful for Australia, and the emotional burden for the people really living these experiences must feel similarly heavy. Nevertheless, as the evening remains fixed at this grinding dirge-note, the stories lose their definition. It becomes a miasma of grief, a grey and orange wall of sorrow.
This is a shame, because there are some notable performers in the cast – Mary Sitarenos and Peter Paltos particularly. As an ensemble they feel alienated from each other. They’re separated by the text, much of which is monologue, but also by the design: an empty orange floor with red earth piles of dirt variously located around the stage, with pools of light that find and emphasise each actor, mostly in solitude.
This distance between the performers speaks of the isolating effect of seeking asylum in Australia, but it also drains the encounters of their drama. Only Milad Norouzi’s Beautiful Jail, which feels heightened and febrile in his own hands as performer, really stands out from the rest. His hesitant performance feels full of real dread, real urgency.
There are moments that ring out of the din. A child’s swing hangs over a patch of dirt. A young girl (Sahra Davoudi) stands behind it, pushing it back and forth as she chants “Woomera Australia Woomera Australia” while the swing crosses the border between the two. A woman wrapped in black (Sitarenos), curling up to sleep next to a mound of earth the size and shape of a shallow grave.
The collection of plays draws a comparison between actors auditioning for a part and refugees trying to pass citizenship tests and to fit in to Australia. There’s something here, although It feels like an inexact pairing. The stakes are radically different, so the anxieties of auditions and rehearsal fade into the background. There are only a few scenes where this theme is foregrounded anyway, in Wahibi Moussa’s I Can Be Her and Patricia Cornelius’ The Doll. The other playlets firmly tell miserably familiar stories of Australia’s appalling treatment of refugees and asylum seekers.
There is something to be made from the connection Cornelius’ draws between Olive from Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and the experiences of asylum seekers. Both know stifled hope, and a terrible suspension in their day-to-day lives as they wait either for their cane cutters to come back to Melbourne, or for a Determination to be handed down by the Department of Immigration and Border Protection. As I said, it’s a little inexact, but there are echoes. It’s also a joy to see Sitarenos play Olive, even if it’s only lines here and there scattered through the rest of the monologue. She’d make a formidable Olive.
Between the scenes and moments there is restrained improvisation on a kanun (an Iranian instrument somewhat like a harp or a zither) by Vahideh Eisaei, sometimes joined by Norouzi on guitar.
These glimpses into the characters’ worlds are well-made and tell a hard story that we need to keep hearing. Sadly, few of them flesh out to more than reflections in smoke. Together they dance around the shadows cast by the issue, but the narratives thin out and go nowhere. Individually the parts are pretty strong but, in this instance, the sum of those parts is somewhat less than the whole.
The Audition, written by Christos Tsiolkas, Melissa Reeves, Milad Norouzi, Patricia Cornelius, Sahra Davoudi, Tes Lyssiotis & Wahibe Moussa, Direction and concept by Irine Vela. Lighting design by Gina Gascoigne, design by Adrienne Chisholm. Performed by Mary Sitarenos, Milad Norouzi, Peter Paltos, Sahra Davoudi and Vahideh Eisaei. Outer Urban Projects at Courthouse Theatre, La Mama. Until November 24. Bookings