October 12th, 2022
IO Performance’s latest offering, [Blank] By Alice Birch, presents a unique opportunity for a theatre maker, whether you’re a writer, director, or an actor. Birch, who’s previous work, Anatomy of A Suicide, was tackled by IO in 2019 (and won the Tasmanian Theatre Award for Best Production), has here written a script that will consistently challenge the notion of a scripts “shelf life” for years to come. This work, written as 100 semi-related vignettes that sharpen the spotlight on conversations of domestic and sexual abuse, suicide and mental health battles, and the prison and judicial system, encourages a production team to curate an experience that positions itself within the current social and political climate of the time. You could feasibly never see the same production of [Blank] twice as each production could contain different scenes in a different order, depending on the current world view of the theatre maker telling the story.
IO Performance’s production is made up of 34 of the 100 scenes; dramaturgically tied together by Grace Roberts and assuredly directed by Chris Jackson with a talented ensemble of nine women. These actors confront this weighty and impactful content with exquisite skill and sensitivity. These actors were evidently very passionate about the importance of the words they delivered, as [Blank] is one of the strongest acting ensembles IO has assembled.
There was scarcely a weak link amongst the nine strong ensemble, even the two youth actors Elizabeth Moore and Makaela Apted, held their own alongside their more experienced co-stars. This was aided by the script, which empowered every actor to have an opportunity to showcase a moment of passion, vulnerability, fun or generosity that ensnared the audience into every story and every character represented.
Zoe Jensen, in her first performance back in Launceston after graduating from NIDA in 2013, was a marvellous addition to an already stellar cast. Her intoxicating charisma and effortless characterisation in a multitude of roles, brought poignancy and sympathy to stories and situations we may not have found ourselves in, but could immediately relate to. Her years of professional acting experience was an asset to this group and helped the whole cast push themselves an extra step higher.
Katie Hill, unsurprisingly delivered another captivating performance. She has an innate skill and ability to alternate between excellent comic timing, leaving an audience in fits of laughter, and devastating gravitas. Many times, I found myself emotionally immersed in the silences she so heartbreakingly left sitting in the air.
Special mention must also go to Steph Francis, who was able to communicate and maintain an internalised grief in tense scenes and a genuine humanity in others, that really helped her performance to stand out.
But every actor had a standout occasion; Grace Roberts produced one of her best performances, her vulnerability throughout, grounded by the belief in the words she was saying. Jade Howard, who’s sympathetic turn as a women’s refuge warden, opened my eyes to difficult situations victims of domestic abuse must go through. Tash McCulloch’s turn as a victim of sexual assault who confronts her doctor about a medical certificate, comes with such a tense period of stillness, that we could hear a pin drop in the audience and Ruby Howard’s final ranting monologue during an audition, perfectly closes out the play with a “not-so-obvious” fourth wall break that recounts the nights events.
Chris Jackson worked to a much more minimalistic extent for this production, which assisted the focus on the performers and the text, without overcomplicating things with too many elements in play. The multiple scene changes were necessary but felt smoothly handled and the original sound design between scenes kept the previous scene lingering in our senses for a little while longer. This helped the audience not feel the two and a half hour run time as our engagement in the show was maintained.
The last few shows produced by IO have presented some of their most striking and elegant set designs since their inception. They are comfortable now with what the architecture of their space can do, and their scenic designs are reflecting that. [Blank]’s design was clean and uncomplicated, a slanted white roof, but it was utilised throughout with lighting effects that made it such a striking centrepiece for the production.
My only criticism was an overly long opening; with an admittedly very intriguing and arresting soundtrack, but which didn’t really serve the show as desired. Without action or images on stage, unfortunately this moment was lucky to not lose the audience before it had begun. There were also a few scenes, particularly in Act 1 that possibly could have been left out of the overall narrative without losing anything, this may have given the show a sharper focus.
[Blank] is an extraordinary play with themes that aren’t necessarily for everyone. But for those who want to see a production that addresses important conversations with genuine ferocity and vulnerability, [Blank] is well worth the trip. Don’t miss your chance to see this talented ensemble tell these important stories.
Review By Matt Taylor