by Linda Beattie
The Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Water is storytelling in the tradition of Strindberg (a single chair can function as a set) and Pinter (an audience doesn’t have to know where a character is going or even where they’ve been). Water is a visual and sonic narrative from two of Britain’s leading theatre companies, Filter and Lyric Hammersmith, directed by David Farr, Associate-Director of the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Compelling performances from all three founding members of Filter’s Theatre Company, Oliver Dimsdale, Ferdy Roberts and Poppy Miller, result in a scintillating work. With mercurial speed and precision, aided by on-stage sound and light technicians, Tim Phillips and Jon Bausor, the trio metamorphose into multiple roles, moving through time and space to each pick up interwoven strands of the storyline.
Water, liquid solid and gaseous, is the symbolic lynchpin of the play’s thematic field; all other personal and political issues – humankind’s inability to connect with each other let alone reach agreement at a political level – are filtered through the molecular structure of H2O.
The narrative begins with Peter Johnson’s (Ferdy Roberts) 1981 Canadian lecture about the unique properties of water – “most molecules work through repulsion; but not water. Water is a sociable molecule, it loves to mingle”. Peter’s lecture centres on planet earth’s complete dependence on water to sustain humankind; he ends with a warning about the catastrophic consequences if governments fail to agree to manage the global environment, “the waters are already rising”. A dangerous idea for 1981 and one that the corporate world will seek to contain. He is offered a position as Professor of Marine Biology at a local university complete with an attractive financial package on the condition that he curbs his more radical views. Sound familiar?
So begins Peter’s personal struggle between scientific integrity and the prospect of a secure lifestyle. With echoes of Pinter’s Betrayal, the struggle is emblematically played out during a squash game (again by the visual effects of light and sound) between Peter and the university’s Machiavellian corporate donor (Oliver Dimsdale). He who wins the game will henceforth call the shots!
Poppy Miller gives a finely calibrated performance in her major dual roles: hard-nosed human resources manager seeking to compromise Peter’s son, Graham, (Ferdy Roberts). As Claudia, she is an idealistic political aide, labouring to bring opposing governments to agreement at Kyoto while, at a personal level, she is unable to agree to commit to her boyfriend (Oliver Dimsdale). An unexpected pregnancy becomes the catalyst for reaching out to him but he has given up on their relationship and taken himself off to compete in the record for deep-sea diving. The motif is clear: on both a personal and political level reach agreement to commit before it’s too late.
The day after the opening night performance, Ferdy Robert explained that Water is not a political work about climate change but a story about how human beings often fail to reach agreement on a interpersonal level. “We are constantly updating the political material even though the political stance hasn’t changed since 2007, at the Berlin Summit we find that we are still making agreements to make agreements,” he said.
After the show, playwright Bob Ellis and writer Anne Brooksbank declared Water the best three-hander they had ever seen. However, there were others who found it more challenging. Regular theatre-goer Gabrielle O’Donnell said, “This was a thoughtful production that probably tried to do too much.” Warwick Clarke said, “Very good acting brought a mediocre script to life along with effective dramatic use of sound, light and shadow.”