By Nic Conolly
As the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Playhouse plunged into darkness, the strumming guitar chords transported the audience from contemporary Brisbane to New York’s East Village in December 1989. Amidst global events, one crisis gripped New York- HIV/AIDS- with 26,336 reported cases in 1989 alone. In RENT, the characters Roger (Jerrod Smith), Mimi (Martha Berhane), Collins (Nick Afoa), and Angel (Carl De Villa) grapple with the terrifying reality of this epidemic, unraveling their personal struggles with health, scarce resources, and homelessness.
The production skilfully illuminates moments of happiness, fear, love, and kindness amid adversity. Calista Nelmes, in her Australian musical theatre debut as Maureen, delivered a captivating performance. Her solo moment resonated, conveying the harshness of injustice and the urgent need for universal health assistance, regardless of economic status or sexual preferences. Carl De Villa’s thunderous personality shone through even in the darkest scenes, showcasing remarkable versatility in and out of character. Martha Berhane’s portrayal of Mimi, a drug-addicted, HIV-positive exotic dancer, added warmth and depth to the narrative, with a particularly poignant moment during ‘Your Eyes’ that brought tears to the audience.
The intricate set design serves as a poignant reminder, framing the backdrop with eyes and faces of the East Village- a visual motif at the beginning and end. The large metal framework, serving as various settings, juxtaposes the grandeur of a bygone era with the stark reality of lost homes and venues. Set Designer Dann Barber masterfully employs sheer screens to project faces of agony against real-life protest backdrops, creating a narrative deeply rooted in the experiences of many.
Costume Designer Ella Butler’s work is a standout, representing community and advocacy. Protest shirts highlighting causes like sex work and the gay community are visible, while Nick Afoa’s character initially walks the stage in socks and a progressively hole-ridden shirt- a poignant metaphor symbolising the toll of time. Angel, portrayed by De Villa, emerges as a symbol of compassion breaking through silence and taboo to care for those in need. Angel’s vibrant presence against a predominantly dark backdrop symbolises the celebration of love, life, and art amidst injustice, death, and poverty- a profound lesson for reflection.
The production concludes with a powerful message, urging the audience to remember that their stories have many more chapters. The set’s visual motif, the evolving costumes, and the stellar performances collectively emphasise the timeless relevance of RENT’s themes. As we navigate the 527,040 hours of 2024, the audience is prompted to tear a hole in their proverbial fabric and sing out, as the story is far from over- there is truly no day but today.
RENT runs through a limited season, ending on February 11th 2024.
Tickets are available from qpac.com.au.