ArtsHub Review: Extinction

Extinction by Hannie Rayson photograph via Red Stitch Actors Theatre.

Centering around a desperate attempt to save an endangered species, Extinction is an entangled mess of ideology, method, principal, along with good old jealousy, fear and corruption for good measure. Continuing to build on her legacy of nuanced, tightly constructed plays balanced with wit and heart, Rayson again puts her trademarks to full effect, displaying a strong script if marred by a slightly lacking production.

When a Good Samaritan brings a critical Tasmanian Quoll (a species thought to be extinct) to local vet Andy, it sets off a wild race to find and save the rare creature. Involving the vet (a passionate environmentalist) his American zoologist girlfriend Piper, and his sister Heather (whose also the head of the university behind the study). When the Samaritan in question turns out to be a coal mining tycoon and comes with a $2 million proposal to save the Quoll in exchange for mining away the local reserve. It pushes the three into a tangled deal-with-the-devil scenario where the lines between ego and principal grow murkier and murkier.

Rayson’s script is tightly structured with crackling dialogue and rich characters — unsure of how their well-entrenched principles can stack up in the modern world. She is not interested in the easy ‘save the (insert endangered species of the month) from the greedy corporation’ approach, but more about the shades of grey. Andy’s old-school conservation beliefs don’t seem as relevant anymore while Harry (the coal mining boss and former local boy) tries to find a middle ground between ecology and commerce but might just be adding more fuel to the fire. Rayson’s finger is on the pulse of the modern experience, asking tricky questions about what it means to ‘sell out’ in the 20th Century.

There is strong stuff here. Unfortunately, the usually dynamic Red Stitch ensemble seemed to be having an off day, with stilted performances failing to deliver some of the play’s witty — but provocative — one liners with the right amount of sting. Nadia Tass, one of the country’s longest running filmmakers and whose association with Red Stitch has produced some excellent productions, brings a sharp eye for visuals; a breathtaking projection of forests, rain and urban landscapes. Behind the stage it is a triumph (courtesy of Tass’s long-time collaborator David Parker) but on the stage it is somewhat didactic — a black box production in the Fairfax Theatre, a space too large to accommodate it.

That is not to say there isn’t some notable performances here — Brett Cousins brings his usual gravitas as Andy, a man steadfast in his ideals, even as the world changes around him and Natasha Herbert is a strong, weighty counterpoint as Heather. Comedy actor Colin Lane is hit and miss — despite a strong, natural presence, his performance lacks the spontaneity or nuance, characteristic of his previous work. Ngaire Dawn Fair brings intelligence and her usual vibrancy to the role of the naive Piper, but her unconvincing US accent is a distraction. Technical elements are sound with sound designer Daniel Nixon’s controlled touch is excellent and Paul Grabowsky’s score is stirring. Lighting Designer David Parker paints the set with warm light bringing depth to the action onstage.

Hannie Rayson fans won’t be disappointed, neither will fans of clever theatre; those who believe the stage is a platform for ideas will not be disappointed and there is plenty to discuss in the foyer or the bar after the show. Red Stitch fans however might be a little deflated especially after their recent string of hits.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Extinction

By Hannie Rayson
 Director: Nadia Tass
 Performers: Brett Cousins, Ngaire Dawn Fair, Colin Lane & Natasha Herbert
 
 Red Stitch Actors Theatre & Geelong Performing Arts Centre Production
 Arts Centre Melbourne
 
 9–13 August 2016

First published on Tuesday 16 August, 2016

What the stars mean?

  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

Originally published at performing.artshub.com.au on August 16, 2016.