theatARGH

thoughts and frustrations on Melbourne theatre through bright young eyes

Review of Tenderness, Platform Youth Theatre

While, as Alison Croggon rightly pointed out, there are significant stigmas surrounding the creation and production of youth theatre in Melbourne, there are also constant reminders of what a captivating scene that it can be when given the chance. Platform Youth Theatre’s Tenderness is a fantastic example; a bold and unashamedly dark exploration of youth issues, it effectively challenges the assumption that young people are not emotionally mature enough to take part in, or respond to, a theatrical and highly stylised representation of gritty material. Furthermore, Tenderness is not just theatre for “youths”; it is theatre showing adults how theatre can be done.

Using two short scripts from Christos Tsiolkas and Patricia Cornelius, Tenderness, directed by Nadja Kostich, requires you to get your hands dirty. In Christos’ piece, Ugly, Slim (Luke Fraser) and Sil (Camille Lopez) embark on a doomed relationship under the cynical eye of Slade (Anastasia Baboussouras). In Patricia’s Slut, a chorus of girls recount their experiences with Lolita (Chloe Boreham) as she spirals out of control. Each of the texts navigates incidences of violence, abusive relationships, sexual assault and drugs, while moving towards their inevitably bleak conclusions. While the two scripts are kept largely separate (aside from some shared chorus members) and run together with no interval, there is a stunning visual reveal at the end of Slut in which Kostich aims to highlight the parallel, almost universal, experience of our teenage specimens.

Indeed, it is Kostich, her creative team and the cast who really make Tenderness a successful theatrical event. Kostich harnesses strong performances from a diverse cast of individuals, who each take on the demands of the scripts with vigour and enthusiasm. The three leads in Ugly, in particular, give mostly understated, restrained performances which allow for the nuance of Tsiolkas’ dialogue to sit. Much of the on stage action is choreographed exceptionally well by Kostich, making full, and creative, use of the somewhat intimidating fortyfivedownstairs basement space. With that said, however, there are at times problems with sight lines due to the cast-iron pillars through the space, and some of the overly-complex chorus work proves distracting when layered on top of voices and Kelly Ryall’s simple, evocative sound design. Ugly hardly requires a chorus at all, and is at its most engaging when the action is staged around its protagonists. Marg Howell’s set design is a beautiful and intelligent response to the confusion, awkwardness and sometimes emptiness, of teenage identity and relationships discussed in Tenderness: stacks and stacks of cardboard boxes, each with a name stuck on their side, lining the perimeter of the space. It is softly, subtly, accentuated by Richard Varbe’s lighting design.

Which brings me to the scripts themselves. As a piece of theatre, the Ugly and Slut scripts are probably the least impressive aspects of Tenderness. While both Tsiolkas and Cornelius are important figureheads in Australian writing, there is something undercooked about their pieces. Ugly starts off as an engaging character piece, wittily dissecting traditional gender roles and the influence of ethnicity on personal development. However, it quickly becomes a victim of melodrama and clichĂ©; Tsiolkas unsuccessfully takes two of his characters into “drug trip” territory and then attempts to find a resolution far too neatly. Given the challenging nature of Tenderness and the complexity of the issues that it raises, it is unfortunate that Tsiolkas’ final message is “bad things happen when you take drugs”.

Cornelius’s Slut is better crafted and better suited to the short script form, using a chorus of schoolgirls to build tension and pace. But the central character of Lolita, a girl who matures physically well before she does emotionally, often feels more like a convenient construct rather than a fleshed-out character. Cornelius’s protagonist rebels, manipulates, dyes her hair and has sex with her friend’s boyfriends, while at the same time, enjoys going on long trips to her grandmother’s place with a friend and indulging in pre-pubescent fun. The contradictions of Lolita are not dramatised; rather, they are delivered in the third person by the chorus or in highly poetic monologues, ably recited by Chloe Boreham. This is perhaps what makes them difficult to believe in, and difficult to invest in Lolita as tangible rather than an icon or a figure of Greek tragedy. Such a representation may have been Cornelius’s intention, and the chorus really is a breath of fresh air in the discussion of these themes. But impact and effect seem to take the backseat to the writer’s poetry.

Tenderness is a mature and innovative take on unsettling youth material, and here is hoping for a revival to its brief, brief season. For more information about Tenderness and the development process, you can read my interview with Nadja Kostich.

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6 Comments»

  d.g. wrote @

hey chris. i also enjoyed tenderness immensely, but my criticisms are almost inverse to yours! i thought both the scripts were incredible. i don’t think tsiolkas’ was at all cliched: the way i saw it the piece was driven by disintegration, but i didn’t think it was cliched; i mean, for me it’s starting point wasn’t anything near perfection: these were flawed characters who only got more flawed as the piece went on. and as for their ‘downfall’ into drugs + violence…. the final act of violence seemed an inevitability set-up from the first monologue (the kid was a boxer with an obviously short fuse, you always knew he was going to fuck someone up).and the drug-taking i didn’t think was even highlighted as anything to do with the violence that eventuated. it seemed more as a point of connection between two characters and a point of disconnection between another two. i thought the final lines kind of highlighted that beautifully, the absolute hopelessness and nihilism of his violence; that he did it because the guy was “ugly”. and cornelius’ i thought was just fucking outstounding. i loved that it was all third-person, that lolita was this incredible metaslut (although the heavyhandedness of her name kind of ticked me off) – so relatable and tragic, and that section where the girls described those TINY violations that happened every day by men their parents trusted (uncle who touches the edge of a breast in a hug, storekeeper who strokes a palm when handing back change) just absolutely annihilating.

as for the production team: the direction – thought “slut” was brilliant, i liked it a lot, but i agree that in “ugly” the chorus seemed excessive (though obviously as a youth company it was a necessity, to have lots of people involved) and a bit busy. kelly ryall’s sound design “simple”, though? i don’t know. it was definitely superb, impeccably produced as usual, the texture of the beats, the backwards looping and the live percussion was great but i think its intensity and frequency diminished the performances to a degree, especially in “ugly”. the pure spectacle of the constant reverb, the 50000 microphones, the vocal distortions buried the text in places and in places the amplification made tended to diminish the effectiveness of the the actors who were speaking un-mic’d – their voices (and their dialogue) just sounded tinny by contrast, and unengaging.

but yeah these really are quibbles. it really was fucking astounding: great writing, brilliant (and you said it: admirably restrained) performances, and astounding set + lighting.

haha. apologies for the length. just really loved this piece + thought your review was trrraaayyy interesting. we’ll have to discuss this when i see you next!!

great to see you’re blogging again!

x x

  ADHD wrote @

is tenderness still running? im very intrigued to see it…i take it that you didn’t like rock ‘n’ roll? i await your review with trepidation…

btw, did you ever see a piece that was put on at la mamba a while ago called elmo?

  theatargh wrote @

D.G., what a fantastic response. To be honest, mine is a rather deficient review. I feel especially guilty for discussing Kelly Ryall’s sound design at the tail-end of a single sentence – when I say ‘simple’, I think I meant ‘subtle’ – however, your comment makes up for it. I have already given Tenderness earlier coverage and I thought that it would be better to nail out some points rather than construct a 2000 word, brilliant, all-encompassing review, also considering that it has now finished its run.

In regards to Ugly, I agree that the piece was very much centred on relationships and connection / disconnection between individuals. I think this was what Kostich was getting at with the chorus and the characters removing and replacing boxes throughout; the machinations of ‘fitting in’. But I felt so strongly that it was really the sound, lighting and the physical work (when not too distracting) that was engaging me most.

I disagree that the drugs weren’t a significant motivating factor in that scene; there were so many poetic references to what it feels like to be on ‘E’, so much about the freedom and liberation from the constrains of working-class suburbia. Slim was so high he just didn’t seem to care. Perhaps I am overly sceptical, but mainstream television and film dramas love to depict drug use as typical deviant behaviour; it’s an easy way out for the writer to explore other sides to their character, or to push forward the drama, without any real character development or close narrative consideration. And regardless of whether or not the drug-taking was incidental to the conclusion of the piece, I thought that the narrative resolution was very rushed and very clumsy. I don’t mind loose-ends; on the contrary, I love them because theatre in general has such a disposition to tie everything up neatly. But it just didn’t gel with me.

In terms of Slut, I think there was a lot to enjoy in that piece. And I didn’t dislike it at all; I just really struggled with the iconic ‘metaslut’ (love it) character depiction. You know how much I enjoy distanced, third-person text, but I didn’t feel it was used especially effectively for the entire piece; especially when the ‘metaslut’ herself is floating about in space in her white white dress.

But yes, thanks for your thoughts D.G. We shall surely be in contact shortly.

  theatargh wrote @

ADHD, Tenderness has sadly finished its run, but I hear rumblings that it may well return at some stage this year. My Rock N Roll review is still in the wings, and no, I didn’t catch ‘Elmo’. I take it that it shares in common the loveable character whom I linked in my very first blog entry?

  Alison Croggon wrote @

I hope Tenderness does come back, especially after reading your review Chris, as I had to cancel my tickets last week. Good to see you blogging!

  theatargh wrote @

Thanks Alison. And thanks again for coming to talk last week at the workshop. It was a really fantastic insight into both reviewing and blogging. I look forward to bumping into you around the traps.


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