By Pelle Koppel, adapted from the novel by Janne Teller. National Theatre of Parramatta. Director Erin Taylor. Riverside Theatre. 1 – 10 September, 2022

Reviewed : 3 September, 2022*

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography

Young actors Alyona Popova and Joseph Raboy shine in this un-nerving Danish play about teenagers who want to be taken seriously. Teenagers searching for meaning in a world that doesn’t … won’t… can’t … answer their questions about the meaning of life. Their world has gone beyond the supercilious “42” that Douglas Adams suggested in Life, the Universe and Everything. Their world is far more insecure, and Pelle Koppel surmised that if they had to find answers for themselves, they might find discover things that are even more disturbing.

This is Popova’s first professional production since graduating from NIDA. Raboy is more experienced. Both face, in this play, a situation that must have been even more confronting for them than it is for the audience. They tell the story of twenty children trying to convince one of their friends that there is more to life than the “Nothing” he preaches from the branches of an old plum tree. As they search to present him with things that “mean something” to each of them, they sacrifice things that are far more precious than a soft toy.

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography

It is not an easy story to tell. It becomes more and more disturbing as the sacrifices become more personal, more life-threatening. Both performers carry the descriptions of the challenges the teenagers face with poignant, realistic storytelling.  Under the fine direction of Erin Taylor, they become evocative, teenage narrators trying desperately to explain why they have collected a pile of precious and gory objects in an abandoned windmill. Their expressive voices pick up the many faces of fear – bewilderment, bravado, distress, panic – as they describe how each child reacts as they are asked to give up the thing they hold most dear.

There is an almost breathless hush in the audience as the sacrifices become more threatening. Could this happen? Would children, under duress, go this far?

“It is challenging and unnerving,” Erin Taylor suggests, “but if we do not share the search for meaning with young people, they will certainly search for it in our absence.”

Designer Kelsey Lee has converted the Lennox Theatre stage space into a corner of the windmill. A raked floor is surrounded by dilapidated grey slate walls, where light filters through broken spaces. Surrounded by this lowering greyness, Popova and Raboy move easily in the steps of the children they describe, sitting, kneeling, running – or becoming a crumbling crucifix lit from high above the stage.

Photo : Noni Carroll Photography

Lighting designer Kate Baldwin and sound designer Aimée Falzon have created an atmosphere that moves from the brightness of a summer playground to the dim recesses of a village church … and eerie shadowy sounds that follow the children into their growing desperation.

With Lee, they have created an open but enclosing space where Taylor can develop the tension that is inherent to the children’s story. Her direction of Koppel’s adaptation is deft and perceptive, sensitive to the challenges she is asking of her cast – and the anxious children they depict.

As she says: “They are Greta Thunberg screaming in the face of Trump”.

First published in Stage Whispers magazine.

*Opening night