Blackout Songs

by | Jun 11, 2024

By Darby Turnbull

My experience of Red Stitch’s production of Joe White’s Blackout Songs was a marvellous example of content dictating form. A relatively stark, vivid depiction of two people linked by the toxic bonds of addiction that’s enhanced by a sly, incisive structure. As directed by Tom Healy this production alternated quite fluidly between clinical observation and visceral engagement allowing the audience a subtle emotional reckoning with how they engage with the material and these characters. We ‘know’ the beats and tropes through other stories of addiction and co-dependency Days of wine and roses, Requiem for a dream, Fight Club even; so I found myself a somewhat passive observer waiting for the ‘hook’ and about a third way through I found myself gripped by the lurid vicariousness as our two characters sink deeper into self and mutual destruction followed by real tension and finally numb resignation as the play drags its feet to an inevitable conclusion. My companion and I discussed it after, and both had momentary flashes of frustration at the laboriousness of the ending before deciding this was rather the point; engaging with addiction is exhausting and often tedious and that in addition to the trauma of watching someone disintegrate by their own hand become barriers to our ability to connect.

These two characters’ alcoholism is a means of connection; they meet at an AA meeting a young man suffering from withdrawals and an older woman who’s been through this before and discourages going cold turkey and they ditch the meeting to bond over some remedial booze.

White’s text is a surreal, tense, nonlinear exploration of the bond between two people whose memories and instincts are impaired by repeated abuses of alcohol; bits of scenes and dialogue are repeated fluidly; did he do that or did she? Neither has a sense of continuity so they surrender to the lapses through attempts at recovery, multiple rock bottoms and increasingly painful relapses.

Tom Healy and his production team; Co-set/costume Designer Chiara Wenben, Lighting designer Natalia Velasco Mareno and Sound Designer J.David Frankze have created an industrial playspace; once again working miracles within the Red Stitch theatre that combine elation and dissolution and frequently innovate against some of the more obvious impulses the text might invoke. The choices frequently allow you to investigate the emotions of the scene with more skepticism allowing us to wallow in our murkier visceral responses. I was less convinced by the frequent video projections as they took me out of the claustrophobia of the space, but Meri Blazevski’s designs are attractive and well produced and provide some timely moments to pause and reflect.

As an actor’s theatre Red Stitch is frequently home to some of our most exciting and intelligent performers and the pairing of Sarah Sutherland and Jack Twelvetree ranks among the highest I’ve seen.

Their instincts and chemistry as performers are particularly combustible; given the emotional and physical demands of the play the trust and solidarity they display as artists is essential.

Sarah Sutherland is volcanic as the impetuous siren; she frequently gives the impression that she’s being held up by her blood alcohol levels and assortment of fabulous coats. She brilliantly balances the deliberate denial of the breadth of her feelings and the raw knowledge that the party is over. Sutherland uses her considerable stage presence to seduce and then envelop. Since I first saw her onstage nearly 15 years ago, I’ve maintained she’s one of our greatest ‘drunk’ actors.

Jack Twelvetree’s performance is more insular but he’s more than a match for Sutherland’s colourful and vivacious performance injecting this young man with palpable fear and self-disgust with an increasingly physical deterioration as his body begins to rot from this inside.

Both are extremely responsive and frequently take the others lead into some wonderfully dark and achingly humane places. The most courageous are the few moments when they have the clarity to fully appreciate just how far each has fallen and the others place in it. They frequently make us question whether these two actually like each other or if their bond is only one built on trauma and mutual need to self-immolate. And if so, why are they together? The answer would terrify them, otherwise what’s it all for? It’s one of the prime examples of two gifted actors being able to take us through a painful and tenuous emotional process. White’s scenes are by design quick and compact but I often found myself longing for more opportunities to sit within an exchange; understandably he’s opted not to do this because his characters can’t stand to sit with a feeling either but there’s a delectable scene where the two meet after a long estrangement; he’s sober and she’s contemptuous of it; they have a long scene with the two; he drinking tea, her drinking wine and it’s an exquisitely tense build as the audience’s gaze diverts itself to that glass of wine and whether or not he’ll take a sip.

White’s play is a timely and insightful evocation of how we’ve come to understand and treat alcoholism in the western world. There are many wry observations into how accessible an addiction it is and the lack of resources and treatment available for its’ treatment; there’s a righteously angry undercurrent at the inability to access effective and well researched treatment tools such as medication and medical oversight for those in the early, most difficult stages of detox and recovery. Though he wisely doesn’t let his characters off the hook and allows their own culpability to sit beside systematic failure.

Too often works of art around addiction attempt, dishonestly or naively to inject some logic or catharsis into the addiction narrative but White is incisive enough to recognise the melodramatic and abstract existence that is living in an altered state and his characters are finely drawn enough for us to see them as individuals rather than project onto them; with a superb presentation by Red Stitch we are offered a space to sit with the discomfort and hopefully interrogate it a bit further.

Image: James Reiser


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