Directed by Dominic Mercer
Cross Pollinate Productions
The Old 505 @ 5 Eliza
5 Eliza Street, Newtown
Season: 7-25 June
To try to clearly communicate one’s philosophy thesis to a theatre audience could be a big ask. To actually engage them is a challenge. To captivate and entertain them is quite something else. And yet Sam O’Sullivan sets himself the task in his brand new Australian play, The Block Universe – and rises to impressive heights. Not only does the play challenge an audience’s philosophical understanding of time and our lives on earth, but it does so, interwoven with scintillating relationships as a perfect illustration of the concept, and is surprisingly incredibly funny. Few scripts are able to go strength to strength in this manner. Clearly O’Sullivan is one to keep an eye on; he’s got some great stories to tell. Dominic Mercer’s direction of the text is spot on, flashing between laugh-out-loud comedy and dramatic tension in moments.
The story is told in non-linear episodes, introducing the audience to two people at various points of one stage in their life. Andrew is an Arts university student majoring in philosophy, undertaking a thesis about the conception of time and the universe – encompassed in the theory of the Block Universe. He crosses paths with Kristiina, an Estonian pregnant woman, starting new life in Australia. Their relationship grows. They fight, they challenge each other, they tell bad jokes…all in a time of their life where they are able to love. Where the cumulative events in their lives have led to this love.
Jacob Warner plays Andrew and Briallen Clarke takes the role of Kristiina – and together they have the most wonderful chemistry. Perfectly cast, they ricochet off one another with quips and sarcasm that brings an endearing quality to the relationship. Warner comes across as the archetypal philosophy student and his passion for this specific concept of time is infectious, getting the audience on board to embrace the idea. Andrew’s earnestness to support Kristiina with the baby is quite beautiful. Clarke is impeccable as Kristiina. Initially I was apprehensive about the sustainability of an Estonian accent, however her voice work has integrity and is sustained throughout, heightening the comedy played off her as a European with English as a second language. Dialect coaching was by Amy Hume, and paid off well. Clarke has a quality about her as Kristiina that is unassuming and very straight-faced, allowing her to revel in the clever ironies and outright snappy remarks. Both Warner and Clarke are dexterous in their vacillation between comedy and drama, navigating rapid changes of atmosphere within scenes. Mercer’s direction maintains focus and pace in these quick exchanges that serve to wholly engage audiences, as scenes take unpredictable turns. Only at one point did I feel that the philosophical exposition was a little overdone in the text, being a difficult line to draw when dealing with a relatively abstruse concept for the theatre. However on the whole it felt well balanced with this delectable relationship fleshed out by Andrew and Kristiina.
The set design, by Isabel Hudson, is ideal functionally and visually, allowing the actors to create quick set changes with a pull of a curtain. Each prop needed in the course of the play forms a part of the visual puzzle when it’s not being used, being one part fitting into the grand scheme. Lighting design by Alex Berlage effectively serves to create dramatic contrast in some of the less-than-naturalistic scenes, dealing with repetition and confronting our assumptions of ‘the present’.
In light of the #istandwiththearts campaign in the lead up to the Australian election, it only highlights the importance of fostering small to medium theatre as the breeding of young talent, ideas and artistry. To drastically remove funding from these areas is to remove the crucial support of artists in their early years, which allows them to ultimately flourish as the excellent artists that are the foundation of Australian culture. The Block Universe is a prime example of independent theatre that Australia can’t afford to lose. An intelligent play that doesn’t feel bookish, but instead evokes utmost human emotion – it’s a winner.