Review: Asylum ~ theatre notes

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Review: Asylum

Asylum by Kit Lazaroo, directed by Jane Woollard. Design by Amanda Johnson, lighting design by Richard Vabre, sound design by Peter Farnan. With Glynis Angell, Tom Considine, Fanny Hanusin and Tim Stitz. La Mama Theatre, Carlton, until March 8. Booked out, but tickets possibly available: 9347 6948 weekdays.

I've seen two of Kit Lazaroo's plays - the beautifully lyric Letters from Animals and now Asylum - and both productions left me wondering what would happen with these texts if they were given time, money and a large theatre.

This is an unusual thought for me, since I believe that theatre is a cheeringly democratic artform: money is no guarantee of imagination, nor resources of success. Think of Jan Kott's recollection that one of the best productions of Richard III that he ever saw was on top of a table in a Polish student cafeteria. It is belief that transmits belief.

All the same, it seems to me that Lazaroo creates a theatrical artifice that would reward a visionary approach - the kind of direction that, instead of attempting merely to realise the writing, could catch it up and play with it. I suspect that it's a writerly vision that is most effective when seen through a proscenium arch, rather than in the exposed intimacy of a small theatre like La Mama.

I mean by this no disrespect at all to the hard-working cast and crew on the deservedly praised La Mama production of Asylum. Amanda Johnson's set, consisting of a multi-level wall of filing cabinets that opens to reveal miniature puppet stages, is as striking as any I've seen in this space, and it's beautifully lit by Richard Vabre. But the very achievements of this production make you hanker for more.

Asylum follows the machinations of an HIV-positive asylum-seeker, Yu Siying (Fanny Hanusin) as, with increasing desperation, she attempts to avoid deportation back to China. Psychologist Lally Black (Glynis Angell) and immigration official Turlough Dando (Tom Considine) both become as obsessed with the young woman as she is obsessed with her own case, even dragging in Lally Black's brother, Smudge (Tim Stitz), a prison guard who is on stress leave after shooting an escapee.

The immigration case is loosely based on fact, but rather than an earnest docudrama, Lazaroo has chosen to write a strange, haunting melodrama, leavened with black comedy. Each one of these characters - from the asylum seeker herself to those who seek to help or thwart her - is culpable and yet each is also, in some essential way, innocent. What's interesting is that their innocence means that, like small children, they are also amoral: it's not that fault or blame cannot be traced to their actions, but that judgement is suspended here: such values do not apply.

What dominates the play, as the ceiling-high block of filing cabinets dominates Johnson's set, is the surrounding bureaucracy of the Department of Immigration, which creates its own inescapable realities. As in some of Kafka's stories, this bureaucracy is a meaning in itself, creating and maintaining the known parameters of the world with which all these characters must deal, for good or ill.

Its laws are implacable and unquestioned: when bureaucratic imperative collides with human need, need has no chance. The run-off is an uneasy psychosis, a miasma of guilt and dread that haunts all these characters. There is certainly no sense that anyone is "right": rather a sense of a deep, endemic wrongness that can't simply be fixed by a superficial shift of regulations. It's a vision of pessimistic irony that undermines the apparent optimism of the end.

Here Theatre's acclaimed production, back for a return season at La Mama, is faithful to Lazaroo's text, if it seldom surpasses it. As if to compensate for the lack of distance which might otherwise create the necessary artifice or alienation in a larger theatre, the performances tend to the quirkily comic, which can obscure the more serious or moving elements of the play. But each actor manages, at one point or another, to reach past the vaudevillean mask and touch genuine emotional depths.

Picture: Fanny Hanusin in Asylum. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

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