Between Two Waves opens on a Sydney that has seen some seriously bad weather. In the darkness, away from the flooded streets, bursting levees and incessant rainfall, climate scientist Daniel (Ian Meadows, also the playwright) has lost ten years of computer data in a deluge of water caused by a smashed solar panel-skylight. Daniel’s high-heeled insurance adjuster Grenelle (Rachel Gordon) assures him, though – in tones as annoying to him, we suspect, as the calypso music regularly emanating from her mobile phone when she gets a call – that he is one of the lucky ones.
From this point, we’re thrown backwards in time. A younger Daniel, schmoozing for a gig as advisor to the Department of Climate Change, meets, illumined in unglamorous red light, Fiona (Ash Ricardo), a woman who radiates just the sort of glow and warmth that might melt the permafrost of his perpetual pessimism. After some time, Fiona falls pregnant but, with the climate science looking conclusively bleak, Daniel can’t reconcile a possible future with Fiona with the future of the world as he knows it.
The science sprinkled through Between Two Waves makes for sobering contemplation. Daniel’s aria of doom is a showstopper – the weather forecast from hell, basically; a prophecy of environmental disaster. But it’s not just the thought of rising sea levels that has the audience in thrall. Meadows visibly suffers for the role, bottling up his anxieties until they unleash themselves in hyperventilative fits. Fiona’s tender resuscitation of him is one of the more beautiful, vulnerable moments of human contact we’ve seen on stage all year (and there are a couple in this production), delicately observed by Meadows and rendered by director Sam Strong. (An early musical number tells us a lot about Daniel and Fiona – the Beach Boys’ ‘Don’t Worry Baby’, Brian Wilson’s vocals as heartbreaking as usual: “But she looks in my eyes / And makes me realise / And she says don’t worry baby...”)
Strong has proven his wizardry at navigating separate timelines and narrative threads before at Griffin in The Boys, And No More Shall We Part and Speaking in Tongues. Between Two Waves does much more than flash back and flash forward, though: the script and direction create the sensation that Daniel is displaced in time, adrift between the before and after of the disastrous storm. One fantastically conceived and executed sequence late in the play sees Daniel trapped in a panicky limbo of the past and the present combined. It’s the perfect representation of a man tormented by too-real premonitions of the future.
Betraying some of its origins as a screenplay, Between Two Waves is a terrifically showy production for Griffin, exploring new atmospheric possibilities in the Stables Theatre to miraculous effect. Daniel is suspended in a tight space: designer David Fleischer’s pristine white floor, claustrophobically low-hanging white ceiling (think about how seldom we notice a ceiling in the theatre and you’ll appreciate the tightening sensation it creates here) adorned with a single light bulb. AV designer Steve Toulmin’s projections evoke a life flashing before one’s eyes, lighting designer Matt Marshall plays with a palette of pre- and post-apocalyptic hues and some of the sound design by Steve Francis evokes the slow build of a tsunami. And, unlike some of the hallucinatory realms we’ve come to expect from other theatre-makers, Strong’s stage magic is always anchored very much in the real – the moments serve the story rather than the other way round.
Meadows and Strong impart a lot to the audience in a fairly overflowing 100 minutes. The production embraces ambiguity – intentionally leaving questions to linger afterwards – but a couple of plot points do come across as slightly more than half-submerged: the fate of Daniel’s sister is fleetingly handled and Fiona evaporates from proceedings with cruel abruptness. Grenelle’s personal drama, on the other hand, tends to distract – not to say it detracts – from the bigger drama taking place.
That said, Between Two Waves marks a proud moment for Griffin Theatre Company. It’s the first play to come out of the new-ish Griffin Studio playwright residency and the third new play birthed by Griffin artists this year (after the scintillating A Hoax and spellbinding The Sea Project). And the end is nigh for Strong: Between Two Waves is the last production he’ll direct as Griffin’s artistic director before he leaves for Melbourne, having made an outstanding contribution not just to Griffin but to theatre in Sydney. It’s a fitting show to bow out on.
Between Two Waves is about a complicated relationship between two people just as much as it is about our complicated relationship with the planet. It manages to be frequently moving in its handling of both. Like the TS Eliot poem cycle its name is lifted from – a series of poems that ponder the fluidity of time, cataclysm, regeneration and endings-as-beginnings – Between Two Waves boldly takes on some incredibly profound questions. The result is a work of immense and lasting impact.
Sam Strong and Ian Meadows interview.