Some nights at the theatre are designed to be easy, crowd-pleasing entertainment that spits you out into the night with a big grin on your face – Love Me Tender is not one of those experiences.
Writer Tom Holloway’s play is guaranteed to provoke meaty after-show discussion as it confronts the audience with subject matter that will leave some uneasy, but moved, by the emotion on display. Others may be baffled by the lack of traditional narrative and will resist the effort required of the audience to engage with this complex piece of work. The backdrop of the Black Saturday bushfires will doubtless also resonate and certainly helps locate the experience in a very contemporary Australian setting.
Directed by Matthew Lutton, the staging is simple. Five actors step on and off a glass-encased section of turf and gradually reveal the troubling story of a father and daughter.
The play is a little hard to engage with in the early moments – where exactly are we? What is this supposed to represent?
This is a production that takes no prisoners. It runs for 90 minutes with no interval and traditional theatrical conventions are absent. There are no distinct acts or scenes to ease us into the proceedings; instead a freewheeling and impressionistic series of exchanges and monologues that slowly reveal the confusion and tragedy that engulfs the central characters. We are forced to adopt a number of roles – sometimes merely observers, sometimes almost participants in the onstage dialogue.
Love Me Tender is disorienting and abstract and requires us to pay attention. The actors are totally committed in their performances, but it’s unusual to see a piece which demands a similar level of commitment from its audience.
If I’m honest, I felt lost initially and was unsure of its intentions. Then suddenly, it started to broach the subject of pre-teen sexuality and BOOM, the whole play is completely galvanized by an out-there and astonishing dance-number to Britney’s Gimme More.
It’s dirty and shocking and horrifying and completely appropriate, as it forces us to embrace the excessive sexualisation of kids. I could feel the unease in the audience around me, but, boy, it is a mesmerising moment and a singular accomplishment for the actor playing the daughter (who I have subsequently learned came up with the whole thing herself after an initial, much less confronting dance number wasn’t quite working in rehearsals).
After this startling moment, the whole thing starts to take shape and an urgency develops that is necessary to draw us through to the tragic conclusion.
It wouldn’t be right to give too much away, but there is strong material here that some will find tough. Paedophilia and porn are discussed graphically but in a way that feels grown-up and appropriate, not merely for shock value.
There are a couple of novel moments that warrant special mention. At one point a live lamb is brought onto the stage and then passed between actors during a discussion of its potential slaughter. It’s destabilising and odd and works very well.
I’m told that Lutton enjoys using liquid in his work (including blood and milk previously) and this time we have a hose and sprinkler drenching the performance area with water. Once you get used to the fact that it’s for real, it feels fresh and different and succeeds in making us focus on the space in a new way.
Some elements didn’t work for me. I felt that the two older characters who discuss and narrate the events onstage interrupted the flow of the piece. What are they meant to represent? I think they might have been the conflicting internal voices of the characters – the devil on your shoulder maybe; a sort of more sober version of the Bad Idea Bears from Avenue Q?
I also found the various moments of a Capella singing distracting, an obvious device that reminded me of the artifice of theatre at moments when I should have just been focused on the complex events unfolding onstage.
Overall, an experience which I suspect will be a favourably received feature of the Belvoir 2010 season. If you like serious modern theatre with its intellectual heart proudly and prominently on display and can handle a tough, grown-up night out, this one’s probably for you.