Brink Productions
Odeon Theatre
Until 05 Mar 2011

Review by Ben Aitken

Skip Miller, esteemed photojournalist, is sizing up a potential target – 200m away, a group of refugeesmoving north across African plains. To his young Liberian apprentice he explains why their present position isthe best spot from which to shoot: ‘Distance is powerful.’

Brink Production’s latest collaborative piece certainly keeps a safe distance from political hot potatoes.Programme notes reveal the writer, Sean Riley, and director Chris Drummond’s reluctance to deal with thebulky geo-political issues inherent in the material. Instead, they elect to focus on a series of short storieswhich show the real or unreal meeting-points between Australian and African lives. Does this reluctance, thisdistance kept, hamper or heighten the play’s political and dramatic effect? Is distance empowering? The juryis interminably out.

The tussle between distance and proximity, revelation and concealment, is certainly shot through this play. Ata time when the merits and dangers of transparency are a hot public topic (think Wikileaks), Riley’s complexarticulation of this tussle is timely. It is also defiantly unresolved. The fates of the characters are split betweenthose who find life and those who lose it. This begs a tough question: how much knowledge is enough?

One answer is offered by Patience (Assina Ntawumenya), a refugee now living in Australia, who is reluctant toshare her stories of grief, asking: ‘What good will come of telling?’ It is the art of the playwright and thejournalist to both tell and not tell.

Yet there is nothing reticent about the staging. The wings are exposed, revealing musicians (playing kora,cowbells and song gong) and actors between scenes. Further, props are few and the direction sparing.

Riley tells of his admiration for photojournalists. Certainly, the best do effective work and take huge risks, buta Western lens upon foreign soil is an historically, and politically, fraught arrangement. In short, is enoughsaid here of the ephemeral and mercenary Western appetite for pictures of grief and torment?

Of the cast, Chris Pitman as Skip scores the most points. He skilfully and patiently conveys the man’s fragileand volatile state of mind. With others in the cast, however, there are problems with intelligibility andaudibility. But there are certainly no problems with the methods and devices of screening footage and image.At one point, the projected faces of Africans hang by string from rafters; it is a brittle suspension, and soonthe faces fall, sweeping graciously but inevitably downward. A troubling image.

Are we, an audience of mostly white Australians, being asked to feel pity for these faces, to feel in awe oftheir resolve? to recognize their humanity?

The form of the play is one of woven narrative threads. Each thread, whether focused on Patience, or Basel,or Augustus, the South African pharmacist, gives a tug on our emotional capital, makes a play for a measureof our care and credulity. Riley is an assured and awarded writer and that much is evident in this script. Butthe problem here, as I see it, is one of form. He hasn’t given himself enough space in which to operate, and,consequently, the audience enough space and time to become engaged with any one character or story. Allwe feel are small tugs and nudges, when what is called for – what is urgent – is one almighty wrench,possible only if the writer cuts off less than he can chew.

Better to tell one story fully than several sparingly? This was my quiet question as I caught the bus home.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)