Theatre

Red Stitch’s production of The Flick is a luminous and intimate examination of changing relationships.

By Peter Craven.

Nadia Tass directs Pulitzer-winning play The Flick

Ben Prendergast and Ngaire Dawn Fair in The Flick.
Credit: JODIE HUTCHINSON

It was a glowing prospect, the idea of Nadia Tass again directing a play by Annie Baker for Red Stitch. In 2011, Tass directed Baker’s The Aliens in a production that could have graced any stage in the world and left its audience grateful. The production, which had a towering performance from young actor Brett Ludeman, among a trio of superb performances, represents a high-water mark in Australian theatre. The Flick, the new play by Baker, does not have the same contortion of tragic feeling as The Aliens but it is manifestly the work of a major playwright, in the way Twelfth Night or Measure for Measure are manifestly the work of the author of Hamlet

Nadia Tass directs a splendid cast with a glowing, understated brilliance that has no false steps and presents the swooping sad comedy of this marvellous play set in a cinema as if she were intimate with every mystery and insinuation of the depths of pain and desire that ordinary life contains. It is a beautifully written play, and this production has all the cinematic illusionism, all the understatement and grace of realism in the world, while possessing an intrinsic theatricality that allows a play of Shakespearean length – two-and-three-quarter hours with a 20-minute interval, made up (or so it appears) of the desultory and self-diverting conversation of two cleaners and a projectionist in an old-fashioned cinema – to unfold with a sap-fresh spontaneity that never disguises the fact that The Flick has all the entrances and exits, all the role-playing summations of what life may or may not hold, in the world.

The setting is Massachusetts – in fact, the town of Worcester (the birthplace of poet Charles Olson) – though it could be anywhere in the great Eastern Seaboard. Two guys – one white in his mid-30s; the other early 20s, black, a student and sensitive – are cleaning a cinema, and in the long opening moments of the play, the older white guy tells the young black intellectual how to clean, how he lusts to be a projectionist, how a girl has been promoted to this treasured, all-but-archaic role ahead of him. He also says the girl is gay.

She’s not, a fact she discloses to the twitchy young student. He takes a dim, young, agonised view of life’s possibilities. She’s full of a reckless, ironic glee that’s also hopeful inasmuch as her ever recharging flame of lust for the nearest someone soon goes out, like a match, or so she says. She’s not amused by the older man’s imperviousness to her as nothing but an object of impossible desire. She hurls herself at ... what? Life. And, at one point, the young boy, at least for a flickering, busy instant.

In the second half of the play there is a crisis over the cinema itself, which the student treasures because of its adherence to celluloid in a digital world. Things clarify and fall apart. They shed their masks and reshape them, with a great wave of poignancy that never precludes the irony and the gritty forbearance with which these young stoics ride into battle.

The Flick is a magnificent play with a subdued grandeur of articulation that tugs at the heart and tickles the ribs, over and over again, as if drama – the theatre, for heaven’s sake – were a sufficient medium to express the world.

Ngaire Dawn Fair is stunning as the projectionist girl. She is full of the pert mockery of the bottomlessly, worldly young. She laughs at situations that she cannot see, and she sucks up the world as if it were so much sex, though everything about her is veiled by the recognition that nothing is that simple. It is a wonderful performance, and if you were a Hollywood or HBO producer, or a West End or New York one, you’d be beating on this actress’s door. At one point she does a dance – out of sync, largely, to the hip-hop music played – which constitutes a staggering mime of all the sexual bewilderment and hope of pleasure in the world.

Ben Prendergast as the older guy is dry and patient, and rackety and abashed. It’s a great portrait of a man with a heart and mind as good as the next one, who fears that he has started to wither, but who has a kind of wily instinct for life in the midst of his own confusion.

And Kevin Hofbauer as the nerd who believes in the idea of the cinema, traditionally conceived, has a beautiful, unglamorous individuality that is a transfiguration of what character acting can mean. In fact, it is so good a performance that it has something heroic about it, because the thousand flaws in the glass are all there. The character is already shattered – his youthful illusion is that he’s already in pieces – and yet when he looms with anger and self-possession as The Flick progresses, you realise he has the glitter of prospects his fellows can’t know or know they can’t have.

Red Stitch veteran Dion Mills (a man I’d rather see play Iago or Albee’s George or the Master Builder than the next actor) is flawless and selfless as first a homeless person, then a replacement cleaner who disappears into trances. 

But this is a marvellous play made out of what could as easily have been a piece of string, and Nadia Tass directs it with a masterliness that draws absolutely no attention to itself. The images glow in the mind: Fair, radiant in semi-profile from the projection box, looking like the longing the screen arouses; the dignity of the 35-year-old defying a sense of shame at having an intellectually disabled brother; the young man, loyal with a fierce, awkward tenacity to his father, repudiating his mother; the old-fashioned idea of film, though aware of the illusion; the glimpsed old poster of the two kids in Fanny and Alexander.

The Flick shows why the theatre is its own magic lantern, and it shows through the dynamic imagination of Tass how it can take on everything the cinema creates and come off triumphant, with a few human bodies and faces in a small, it might almost be empty, space.

Arts diary

• VISUAL ART  Capital and Country
Newcastle Art Gallery, until May 31

• THEATRE  Educating Rita
Ensemble Theatre, Sydney, until June 28

• VISUAL ART  Transmission: Legacies of the Television Age
NGV International, Melbourne, until September 13

• MUSIC  Melbourne International Jazz Festival
Various venues, Melbourne, until June 7

Last chance

• VISUAL ART Costumes from the Golden Age of Hollywood
Museum of Brisbane, until May 24

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 23, 2015 as "Flickering light". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.