Prying into the psychology of teenagers has recently proved fertile ground for Australian playwrights. Whether it’s lurking on social media networks waiting for that perfect unpunctuated encapsulation of the teenage experience, or enthusiastically workshopping “authenticity” with actual high-school students, or fictionalising accounts of those front-page crises where, for one sordid reason or another, teenagers suddenly find themselves the object of frenzied media attention, the adolescent mind has rarely been so enthusiastically quarried for stage materials as today.
Tenderness, which is actually two short plays, one each by Christos Tsiolkas(Ugly) and Patricia Cornelius (Slut), is a typical example of this vogue. But despite all the allusions to recent events, the frisky zip of young the cast, the compelling direction of Nadja Kostich and the expressive combination of Richard Vabre’s stark lighting and Kelly Ryall’s menacing sound design, there is a lack of ambition in these scripts which makes them seem somewhat dated. Added to this, the tone of rancorous cynicism broken up with expressions of maudlin longing, characteristic of both scripts, make this an occasionally cringeful evening of theatre.
Tsiolkas’s Ugly is a study of a frustration and violence through the lens of a high-school drop out (Matt Hickey), who commits a seemingly senseless act of violence. The playwright’s challenge here is to re-insert the “sense”, the background of alienation that would be missing in newspaper reports of such an incident.
Slut has a similar sort of program, taking Christopher Hudson’s 2007 shooting spree as its starting point, the play generates a fictionalised history of Hudson’s “lover”, Kara Douglas, dubbing her “Lolita” (Peta Sergeant), and speculating on what kind of personal story might lie behind the tabloid label of “party girl”.
The background which the playwrights suggest for their characters has, I think, the unfortunate effect of flattening them rather than providing depth, crushing them beneath a vaguely politicised mood of sarcastic disappointment. Taking Slut as an example, by fixating on Lolita’s willing promiscuity, and the responses of those around her to that promiscuity, it is Cornelius herself who diminishes her character, reducing her to the stereotyped girl-who-just-wants-to-please. Even the small news items published at the time of Christopher Hudson’s arrest where not so simplistic as this. Cornelius is here plotting a reductio ad absurdum, suggesting, through the mouths of Lolita’s friends, that the life of the “slut” is worth less in the public’s eyes than that of the man who dies trying to save her, but the point is very bitterly made.
A similar jaded diminution infects Tsiolkas’s piece, as the main character’s thuggishness is framed as a mere response to “society” deeming him “ugly”. The artistic effect of reducing the dramatic complexity and amping up the disaffection is an all pervading sense of gloom which strays at times into the bleakest sentimentalism.
In emphasising their thematic consistency, Kostich unifies the staging of both pieces, running them together without interval. The use of school gym equipment neatly identifies the adolescent body as a principal site of exploration, as the actors leap around the stage, throwing themselves against gym mats or taking flight on the climbing ropes. It’s a novel way of evoking the sense of restless energy and physical oppression that can characterise adolescence. Stephanie Capiron and Rebecca Mezeli play lively supporting characters across both performances and go a long way to disrupting the hopeless mood.