Griffin Theatre Company’s new production, This Is Where We Live, is a modern-day reflection on the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice. A story of two teens trapped in small-town hell, and their attempts to break out, it is an original and surprising new Australian work.
“Everyone has their own version of hell when they’re a teenager,” director Francesca Smith tells me. “For Chloe and Chris, the central characters in this story, it’s school and family. The play taps into those universal teenage feelings – the sense that you’re not heard, and not understood. Chloe and Chris are low on the pecking order, but they find solace in each-other as outsiders, and Vivienne Walshe’s script allows you to experience those feelings as the characters do.”
The play finds Chloe at a tumultuous time in her young life. “She’s going to a new school, her mum has a new boyfriend,” Smith explains, “so she has a lot to deal with, and she covers up her real feelings with a lot of sexual bravado.” Chloe’s deeper struggle, however, is the fact that she can’t read, and it seems there’s nobody in her life who’s willing to be there and help out. “Her nightmare is that she has to get up and read in front of the class, and the words just fracture in her mind,” Smith continues. “Chloe’s really in trouble, but when Chris becomes her friend, he offers her something genuine, and helps her find her imagination. It’s a story of fracture and damage but also healing.”
This Is Where We Live was the winner of last year’s Griffin Award, recognising a play that displays an authentic, inventive and contemporary Australian voice. In particular, the judges singled out playwright Vivienne Walshe’s inventive use of language and voice. “The play is like a giant theatrical poem,” Smith explains. “The speech has the rhyme and rhythm of pop music – it’s unlike anything else I’ve seen before.” For a time, Smith considered having a live band to accompany the actors, before deciding that the music in the text worked better on its own. “When we were developing the work, I toyed with the idea of getting live musicians in,” she says, “but finally, I realised that the music is already there for the actors to bring out in their words.”
After Walshe’s script won the Griffin Award, she was able to spend time developing it with Smith, as part of Griffin’s commitment to nurturing young talent. “We’ve been working on the play together since its inception,” Smith explains. “We had a period of very intense creative development where we essentially formed it together, and got it to the point where it is now. She’ll come back from the States at the end of the rehearsal process, and we’ll make any necessary nips and tucks then. I’m in contact with her, and I can call her if I think anything really needs addressing, but I think it’s in beautiful shape right now.”
Griffin has been in the press lately as one of very few theatre companies – indeed, possibly the only one in Australia – solely devote to the performance of new local works. The Griffin Award is just one small part of this, receiving a record 162 entries this year. Smith takes this commitment to nurturing and celebrating Australian voices very seriously. “Griffin has a proud tradition of telling these kinds stories, from local voices,” she says. “If we as Australians don’t celebrate our own stories and pass them on to people, there’s no voice or cultural expression for us, for what we’re living.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN