REVIEW: The Hope Song, Flight Path Theatre, Marrickville, Wednesday 18 September.
Reviewed by Richie Black.

Hope is a precious commodity: elusive, ephemeral — and often at the heart of our struggle for wellbeing. 

The Hope Song tracks the journey of those moving, bit by bit and day by day, from despair to a state of hope, which may or may not be lasting. 

In this verbatim theatre drama first produced by Anglesea Performing Arts (APA) in 2017, the words spoken by the actors are those of seven real people who shared their experiences of mental illness with writer Janet Brown. 

And this production, by Crying Chair Theatre Company for the Sydney Fringe Festival, works to ensure those experiences are presented truthfully, sensitively and sympathetically. 

Ranging from a 17-year-old girl to a 57-year-old man, these stories are told to us plainly and without affectation. There are no epiphanies or neat resolutions here: hope is often discovered (and re-discovered) in quietude and reflection. 

But therein lies a lot of the play’s subversive and poignant power — it is the ordinariness of these people’s lives that masks the extraordinary pain they are in. 

Performances are deliberately low-key and naturalistic to reflect the suburban “ordinariness” of their stories. The best of them includes that of the talented Socratis Otto (renowned for his brilliant turn in Foxtel’s Wentworth), whose quiet and nuanced story-telling ensures a moving evocation of a desperate past. 

“The Hope Song” director and actor, Socratis Otto. Photo: supplied.

 

Socratis also directs the play and does so with a deft, subtle touch. The mood is sombre, reflective, (almost) anti-theatrical— punctuated, it must be said, only by the planes that regularly screamed over the Flight Path Theatre, serving ironically to enhance the pain and oppression of our characters (Can you dramaturg a flight path? We did). 

That said, there could have been opportunities to introduce more non-air-traffic-related dynamic elements — especially in the second half, which does flag a little. They may have applied to the songs, which are played live (and extremely well) at intervals throughout to reflect each individual’s sense of purpose and optimism.  

Nevertheless, The Hope Song is undoubtedly effective in shining a light on an issue that is stigmatised and misunderstood. Any criticisms to be made of the script are problematic considering the nature of “verbatim” — its self-imposed limitations and (especially in this case) the logistics and ethics of the interviewing and research process. 

And yet, could there must be something more here — untapped possibilities for a more engaging hour-length drama? 

Possibly. The reliance on monologue certainly emphasises the isolation of the characters. Still, the presence of an “other” — a loved one, a counsellor, even the interviewer — in dialogue may have served to contextualise this isolation, frustration, pain and struggle of these characters. 

In doing so, it’s possible there would have been more dramatic heft to enhance our understanding of each individual while providing a more satisfying, engaging theatrical experience. As it stands, a character like 17-year-old Lizzie — while beautifully played by Chantelle Gardiner — currently feels a little unsubstantiated in the writing and marginalised in her own play.  

These quibbles aside, The Hope Song represents a rare opportunity for those typically without a platform to share their quietly hopeful stories. Conventional dialogue will hopefully take place outside of the theatre space — and that alone makes this an important work. 

 — Richie Black is an AWGIE Award-winning actor, journalist and playwright, and a graduate of NIDA (Writing for Performance). He is based in Sydney. 

The Hope Song continues today and tomorrow (2pm Saturday, 21 September; 7pm, Saturday, 21 September; 2pm Sunday, 22 September) at the Flight Path Theatre, Marrickville, as part of the 2019 Sydney Fringe Festival. Visit www.flightpaththeatre.org/whats-on/hope-song-sydney-fringe-festival for tickets ($27-$35) and further information. 

Look out for the upcoming Star Observer interview with Socratis Otto, discussing The Hope Song, his internationally renowned portrayal of Maxine Conway in Wentworth, and more.

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