The history of The Lawler is a sad reflection of the place of independent theatre in the imaginary of Victoria’s biggest company. This underused studio space in Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre complex was originally intended by Simon Phillips – then MTC artistic director – to be a flexible option to permit the production of new work.
Phillips was following the lead of British companies such as the National Theatre. Under Sir Peter Hall, the National Theatre Studio was established in 1984 to permit open-ended research and development that wasn’t tied to selling tickets. Later, under Nicholas Hytner, its resources were also used to develop works that ended up on their main stage, such as a hugely successful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.
This never quite happened in Melbourne, where the MTC has mainly employed The Lawler to produce its education program for schools. This has sometimes been brilliant – in 2011, for instance, Leticia Cáceres directed a scorching Zahra Newman in debbie tucker green’s Random. Between 2013 and 2015, The Lawler produced some of the most exciting theatre in the state when it hosted some its most significant indie companies for the yearly Neon Festival, including The Hayloft Project, with a play directed by current MTC artistic director Anne-Louise Sarks.
Watching Dan Giovannoni’s SLAP. BANG. KISS., the sole offering at The Lawler this year, I couldn’t help reflecting on the studio’s history. Developed through the MTC’s Next Stage program, this is a play for young adults that arrives with the best of intentions, but seems to wind back The Lawler’s previous successes.
Giovannoni is an experienced playwright, best known for his award-winning stage adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’s collection of short stories, Merciless Gods, for Little Ones Theatre. He’s also written extensively for young people, collaborating with companies such as Barking Gecko and Arena. I wondered a lot about the development process of SLAP. BANG. KISS.: what questions had been asked and, maybe more importantly, what hadn’t been interrogated. It was like a flashback to the well-meaning didacticism of Theatre in Education plays of the 1990s.
The form is interesting, at least at first. Giovannoni takes three transformative moments – a slap, a gunshot and a kiss – and in a series of fragmented dialogues weaves together the three stories around them into a parable of how, as Galadriel says to Frodo Baggins in the film of The Lord of the Rings, “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”
Directed by Katy Maudlin, the action takes place on an abstract set by Kate Davis, cleverly lit by Amelia Lever-Davidson, in which the actors declaim on moveable blocks. It allows flexible movement between different imaginative spaces, reflecting the fast pace of the dialogue, although it also enforces a forward-speaking declamatory mode.
The one thing each story has in common is that the act that changes their lives goes viral on the internet, rippling out into larger collective action.
The three narratives are fictionalised versions of real events: Immi (Tsungirai Wachenuka) is clearly based on Ahed Tamimi, the then 17-year-old Palestinian who drew global attention when she was videoed slapping an Israeli soldier in 2017 after her cousin was shot in the head with a rubber bullet.
Sofia (Sarah Fitzgerald), who is injured during a school shooting, is based on the activists who emerged after the 2018 Parkland shooting: Alfonso Calderon, Sarah Chadwick, X González and Cameron Kasky.
Darby (Conor Leach), an Australian student who is attempting the world record for the longest kiss, draws from two gay couples who did just that, Americans Matty Daley and Bobby Canciello and Thai couple Nontawat Jaroengsornsinpose and Thanakorn Sittiamthong.
It’s unsurprising that the most fully drawn and humanly complex story is about the kiss, which is perhaps the closest to Giovannoni’s own experience. The other two highlight the can of worms that writers open when they approach real-life traumas – especially politicised traumas – that they may only understand from a distance.
In SLAP. BANG. KISS., the ethical and aesthetic problems of writing about such complex and explosive issues are sidestepped by making them generalised events, undoing the particular context of each act.
Immi, for instance, lives in an unnamed country that is controlled by “peacekeepers”. The details that emerge in the text, however, are so specific that it couldn’t be anywhere except occupied Palestine, and the story itself is immediately recognisable as Tamimi’s, who became an icon of Palestinian resistance when she was arrested, charged with assault and jailed.
Watching the events unfold in the two international stories creates a kind of weird ethical vortex. What does it mean to take a story of suffering and resistance and adapt it in a way that removes its specific context, while leaving the fictionalising so transparent that its origin remains immediately evident? These thoughts become very uncomfortable when you consider that footage of Tamimi defying an Israeli soldier has been recently doing the rounds on the internet, misidentified as a Ukrainian girl facing off against a Russian soldier.
The story of Darby is, by contrast, very specific and takes several steps away from its source material. The action takes place in the car park of a small-town Woolies somewhere in Australia. Rather than a couple attempting to break the world record for a kiss, Darby is having his first kiss with his crush, and the defiance occurs when a passing carload of homophobic louts throws a slushy drink at their heads, prompting an online call for people to form a circle around them to protect them.
It’s notable that the characterisation and dialogue in this storyline is more detailed, less tied to the iconic status of the event and, significantly, less earnest. In other words, Darby is the only character who becomes something more than just a symbol.
There’s nothing wrong with basing fictional dramas on real events. And writers, successfully and unsuccessfully, create works beyond their personal experiences – it’s part of the job’s remit. But doing so requires a tact, imaginative suppleness and, perhaps, a sense of risk that is often missing in SLAP. BANG. KISS.
Most of all, I wondered about the students for whom this play is written. It purportedly speaks to the radicality of today’s young people – the generation that is marching in the streets against the climate crisis, signing up in record numbers to vote in the next election and making their own media on TikTok. They’re well beyond the “you can do it, kids!” message of this play. A lot of them are already out there, doing it.
SLAP. BANG. KISS. is playing at The Lawler, Southbank Theatre, until April 30 and tours May 3-10.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 30, 2022 as "Misplaced intentions".
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