By Darby Turnbull
SIRENS begins with a guttural gasp for breath filled with what could be terror, ecstasy or any combination thereof. Benjamin Nichols and his collaborator Izabella Yena with producer Julian Dibley-Hall follow last year’s stunning kerosene with another visceral monologue of emotional isolation, the elation in connection and the barriers and schisms that will sever that connection.
Like kerosene before it, Nichols and Yena show finite insight into the terrible toxicity of loneliness and the hazardous effects it has on physical and emotional safety.
Eden (Benjamin Nichols) is a disaffected 22-year-old in a rural seaside town, working as a cleaner and living with an alcoholic father and chronically ill yet controlling mother interspersed nonplussed Grindr hook-ups and a low buzz of drugs, his only real outlet is when he sings but his platform is limited to his local church. At the beginning of the performance Nichols excels at showing the well-practiced detachment behind the cocky bravado; this is a kid who hasn’t experienced fulfilling connections and is going through the motions of for lack of options or opportunity and convinced himself it’s right.
Eden if you only had a few interactions with him could be written off as an odiously obnoxious waste of your time. He’s curated a personality who’s easily dismissible and Nichols throws himself the raw, messy, ugly sides of his character. Until Eden meets David a former resident of the town who left to live in a metropolis as a drag queen and only returned to watch his father, Eden’s former teacher die. David is cultured, urbane, charming and deeply wounded by decades of social homophobia that Eden has internalised but takes for granted. For the first time Eden feels the intoxication of infatuation and sees David as his way out of the rut he didn’t know he yearned to get out of.
In a year that seems to be especially celebrating solo performances Prima Facie in London via a popular NT live transmission and The Picture of Dorian Grey which enjoyed a six week sold out season based on the rock star verisimilitude of Eryn Jean Norvill; I saw it with Nikki Shiels who’ll get her own solo show with MTC’s Boys and Girls, SIRENS is another opportunity to see a uniquely skilled performer transfix you with their embodiment of their craft. Unlike the above performances this is on a tiny, bare stage with some simple but profoundly effective LED lighting (Harrie Hogan, works wonders in that space at evoking diminishing and elevating moods with a few elegant shifts). There’s nowhere to hide and the audience doesn’t have anything between us, and the full bodied, traumatising ugliness of what Nichols is embodying. The way he uses his body for example, arching and curving it like wire to portray both numbing, dull copulation and out of body, euphoric sex and then later decaying before our eyes as Eden’s scraps of self-worth dissipate, it looks like he could implode before us. Nichols is too intelligent a writer to let the text languish is trauma pornography though, interspersed with the pain is rueful, hard-won moments of grace and the catharsis when he lets his unpolished, but gloriously soulful singing voice explore different registers to soar.
He also has an uncanny knack for creating a whole ensemble of characters that make up Eden’s world with their own vocal tics; a vacuous colleague’s nasal tut, David’s rich, slightly patronising yet seductive baritone, a dementia patients terrified croak, Dad’s booze addled regretful sneers and perhaps best of all the terrifyingly prim mother who’s only barrier between a complete breakdown is domestic tyranny; what Nichols does with his eyes when portraying Eden’s mother will stay with me for a long time.
Director Liv Satchell’s work on this production must be akin to a psychotherapist or physiologist given the emotional and physical terrain she guides Nichol’s through. Her staging is cunningly insightful with microscopic attention to creating a physical and vocal arc for Eden.
Conor Ross also does a credible job at creating an atmospheric soundscape that elevates and informs the context of the performance without detracting from it.
Benjamin Nichols and Izabella Yena are rightfully asserting a place for themselves in the local theatre scene for their exciting and innovative theatre making; they are being recognised by critics and awards committees and this performance will undoubtedly stand out as being one of the highlights of this years Fringe festival.