A review by Nalini Haynes
Created by Elbow Room
Inspired by the work of Samuel R Delany & Marilyn Hacker
Director: Marcel Dorney
Designers: Matt Adey and Zoë Rouse
Lighting Designer: Kris Chainey
Music composition and performance: THE SWEATS
Producer: Dean Cartmel
Cast: Paul Blenheim, Ray Chong Nee, Tom Dent, Laura Maitland, Emily Tomlins and Jacinta Yelland
Theatre Works is located at 14 Acland St, St Kilda, a short distance from Melbourne’s CBD and a suburb with a reputation for diversity and the arts. The building is an attractive little red brick number tucked away in the back streets with a porch and paving creating street presence. If you’re not familiar with the area, I recommend either coming early to find parking or catch the tram. According to Google Maps, the theatre is 350 metres from a tram stop.
Arriving early, I discovered the foyer was fairly full of keen theatre patrons already, with more steadily arriving, waiting to fill the 140 or 150 tiered seats in the boutique auditorium. Patrons enjoyed drinks purchased from the bar, chatting while seated in cafe comfort or standing while waiting for the doors to open.
After walking through cinema-style entry corridors, the stage was revealed.
On the left side of the stage two pillars of metal resembling miniature electricity pylons stand in single file. A large white floor lined as if to play Othello takes center stage surrounded by a low framework like the first layer of a Lego wall when constructing a house. Gaps create entrances. A few blocks are upended on these ‘Lego blocks’ in strategic positions. The rear of the stage features an inverted square ‘U’ corresponding to the ‘Lego’ surround. Behind this structure is a screen with large disk. To the right of the stage is a small table with a chair and writing implements, backed by a ‘study wall’, which periodically serves as a screen for subtitles. Tucked close behind this wall is a glass display cabinet.
The lights dim. The narrator, Emily Tomlins, sets the scene. Iconic SF author Samuel R Delany (Ray Chong Nee), also known as Chip, and poet, translator and critic Marilyn Hacker (Laura Maitland) are on a bus travelling to get married interstate because an African American and a Jew can’t marry in New York.
While Chip seems to love Marilyn, he also enjoys multiple male liaisons of which Marilyn is aware. Chip’s suicidal ideation lands him in psychiatric care where the doctor wants to focus on homosexuality as a mental illness and the cause of Chip’s depression instead of working with Chip to help him through his dehumanizing experiences of racial discrimination and homophobia.
At one point during act one I had tears in my eyes, I found this portrayal so moving.
The ‘real world’ storyline continues as Chip and Marilyn both fall in love with Bob, only to have their triad complicated by Bob’s wife Joanne. Marilyn and Chip struggle with their respective careers, writer’s block, grief and paying the bills. Scenes from Babel 17, one of Chip’s award-winning novels, counterpoint the 1960s historical story, enriching the viewer’s understanding of Samuel R Delany’s inner life.
The Babel 17 scenes use the stage for maximum effect: lighting imbues the white set and silver-and-white costumes with mood-altering ambiance; the ‘Lego’ surround and arch glowing, flickering, dying; the glass cabinet serving alternately as a life capsule and clone grow tank. The costumes and set are very 1960s and 1970s camp, which is appropriate as the ‘real world’ story is mostly set in the early 1960s.
Theatre Works‘s post about this play warns of ‘partial nudity’. At all times actors wear more than the average beachgoer: at one stage Bob strips down to tight boxers that are far more modest than Tony Abbott’s budgie smugglers and Rydra strips down to gym shorts and a modest bra-style top. The rest of the time, the most revealing costumes are skintight bodysuits and short skirts like those you’d see at family-friendly Comic-con or Armageddon. On stage standing cuddles represent sexytimes.
Part science fiction history and part science fiction story, Motion of Light in Water is at times funny, moving, interesting and challenging. Themes of relationships, community, prejudice and preconceptions underlie an engaging story. While all the actors were good, Ray Chong Nee is the star of this show. Nee makes Delany a likable character with whom the audience can identify regardless of sexual preferences. Even my conservative minion enjoyed this performance, largely due to the style with which this complicated and challenging story was portrayed. His verdict: “It’s about community.”
I have a confession: I haven’t read Samuel R Delany’s original Motion of Light in Water although I previously read a synopsis of some of his life that is depicted in the current Elbow Room theater production. This performance has inspired me to track down and read the original.