A review of STC’s production of “Blackbird”

Last night, my wife and I went to the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of “Blackbird”.  As my wife and mother in law had made the selections for this season’s theatre, I had no idea what the show was about until I was filled in with a short synopsis as we were driving into town.  My heart sank when I heard that it was about an affair a 40-year-old man had with a 12 year old girl.  Firstly, I don’t think that paedophilia is suitable subject matter as entertainment.  Secondly as a male I thought it would be another beat up about men and what perverted beasts we are.
Before I go on with my review of the production, I’d like to tell you about a few experiences I’ve had with young girls that have left me with mixed feelings whenever I hear about paedophilia cases.
When I used to work at the carnival in a laser show, we used to get a lot of young teenage girls hanging around.  Quite a few of these young girls made it very clear that they were interested in experimenting with sex with somebody older from outside of their home town, who would leave without telling any of the locals.  As for my fellow workers and I at the laser show, we just saw these girls for what they were, just kids, and in no way were we going to take part in their sexual education.  We just let them hang around, giggle and carry on.  Our logic was that if they hung around us they would be at least staying out of harm’s way as carnivals are places that young girls can get themselves into trouble very quickly.  That’s not saying that the carnies are naturally depraved people, but carnivals are like the rest of the world, which is populated by not only saints, but also sinners.
Another disturbing experience I had with a young adolescent girl (who I was teaching how to make websites) was that as I was sitting at the computer showing her how to lay things out, she stood behind my back, put her arms over my shoulders and started rubbing her breasts in my back.  I immediately got up and told my wife about what had happened and never had contact with that girl ever again.
Those two experiences have shown me that sometimes there is more than what is immediately apparent in some of these paedophilia cases that one hears about.  Having just said that, adults should have better judgment than becoming sexually involved with precocious children.
Blackbird opens in a shabby and untidy lunchroom in what seems to be a factory as the two main protagonists meet for the first time in 15 years.  We quickly find out that the man, Ray is now approaching 60 and the woman, Una is now in her late 20s. The play begins with the all-too-familiar indignantly righteous victim confronting a cowering and shamed perpetrator.  During the first 15 minutes of the play, I sat there thinking to myself, “here we go over that same old, politically correct, ground”, as Una lambasts the re-educated Ray.
Ray was put in jail for six years for what he had done to Una, and in that time, has had to unflinchingly face the reality of his crime through state-administered therapy.  Ray is now a broken man trying to get on with and rebuild his life and as such, is not very pleased to see the seemingly vengeful Una once again.
Ray is right to be worried about Una’s motivation in visiting him. After all, Ray was 40 years old and Una was only 12 when he had sex with her.  Ray had to go to jail and publicly face the shame of his crime and as such, he is only too aware of what he did wrong.  Seeing Una again brings Ray face to face with the reality he has been trying to leave behind and forget.
Fortunately for the audience, David Harrower, (the playwright) only goes over all the obvious ground in the beginning of the play to establish a departure point from which he explores the various aspects of the unequal relationship that exists between an adult and child who are sexually involved.  To his credit, Harrower is almost Shakespearean in the breadth of his insight, as he examines the various facets of what is an immensely complex and emotional issue.
With agonising honesty, Peter Kowitz plays Ray as an open wound with acid being poured over it.  At times it was excruciating to see Ray writhe under the harsh spotlight of Una’s focused anger.
Paula Arundell masterfully plays Una as part incandescent avenging angel and part vulnerable bewildered child looking for answers.
As the director, Cate Blanchett uses the theatre-in-the-round staging as a small scale Coliseum where the audience looks down on the actors as they warily circle each other while engaged in emotional combat. Blanchett’s sure hand made sure the play did not degenerate into histrionics.
As the play progresses, we find out more and more about Ray and Una’s tragic story.  A tragic story it is, because of all the misunderstanding and hurt that was caused by a young girl’s flirtation with an older man and his weakness coupled with stupidity.  I won’t tell much more of the story because I feel that it would subtract from the reader’s enjoyment of the play, other than to say that the use of a child actor at the very end was a masterstroke as it makes the audience aware of how young a 12 year old girl actually is.
Child sexual abuse is not a lightweight subject of an easy night’s entertainment, but it is an issue that has many facets that I suspect that most people are totally unaware of.  Perhaps seeing even unpleasant things in new ways is one of the functions of art, and I highly recommend this play.
On another note, it was interesting to hear people’s comments in the audience before the show as they were talking about how disappointed they were with some of the Sydney Theatre Company’s productions over the last year.  In particular, “Riflemind” and “The Season At Sarsaparilla”.  As I’ve said before, in a previous post, I didn’t like Riflemind, but it constantly surprises me how many people have seen the show and really hated it.  What concerns me is that the Sydney Theatre Company’s reputation has been so badly damaged by a mediocre season.
If Blackbird is anything to judge the Sydney Theatre Company by, I am hopefully optimistic that this year’s productions will be an improvement on last year’s.

One thought on “A review of STC’s production of “Blackbird””

  1. Thanks for fantastically useful overview of Blackbird and the surrounding issues. Beautifully written and described. Renewed my interest in seeing the play tonight.

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