Set Piece | Anna Breckon & Nat Randall with Performance Space

Image by Prudence Upton

What thrills many people about theatre is its proximity to real life: real people walking around real space in real time. In this new piece by co-creators Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, the conglomerate form of theatre and film presses on the boundaries of intimacy and relation including the relationships between the actors on stage and the audience in the wings.

An older lesbian couple (Anni Finsterer and Dina Panozzo) invites a younger pairing (Nat Randall and Carly Sheppard) over for dinner and drinks as a kind of getting-to-know-you between co-workers. The atmosphere appears casual until conversation quickly reveals Randall’s character as a shag on a rock while Panozzo and Sheppard, the co-workers, engage in a sizzling flirtation. With a script, written by Breckon and Randall with Andrew Brophy, made of collaged 1950s pulp fiction, dialogue from real dinner parties, and improvisation between the cast, Set Piece shuffled and skipped through small talk and thornier topics like same-sex marriage as two different generations found shared footing. But rather than recreate the straight narrative dinner play, Set Piece resisted consistent, linear narrative by circling back, repeating, and rewriting with a steady momentum. With a haziness attributable to the characters’ intoxication or the clashing demands of desire, the characters stretched and pulled conversation into undulating shapes and contortions to represent the shifting, manipulatable stuff of relationships.

The performances were compelling as the actors continued to build their characters through the same and altered scenes. Panozzo and Sheppard presented an interesting iteration of the senior/junior co-worker dynamic with a palpable tension. But Finsterer and Randall as the “side” characters to the central romance were in some ways more intriguing for their unpredictability. Finsterer has seen it all and bestowed her stern, skeptical gaze on her evening’s twists and turns with believable aloofness. On the other hand, Randall’s Holly was painfully earnest in her attempts to impress her wife’s work friends while struggling to maintain a persona of mystery and intelligence. While the Panozzo/Sheppard flirtation had a strong momentum and climax, the confusion and disappointment of Holly’s evening was its own kind of powerful.

Set in the trendy apartment of the older couple, Set Piece‘s physical construction, designed by Genevieve Murray of Future Method Studio, consisted of an allusion to walls and borders with an open floor-plan apartment and shiny metal bars delineating the stage. Despite the transparency of the set with the audience in traverse, the actors were often tucked into corners or wrapped up in a task to maintain a sense of realist relations to space. Here, the use of cameras live-streamed to screens above the stage allowed for another element to explore intimacy and connection. While film is often considered alienating for the mediating screen, the use of film in this production created a new closeness as the operators zoomed into super close shots of actors’ faces to capture minute expression and detail. By bringing these two forms together, director Breckon sought out the boundaries between theatre and film but also more subtle boundaries like between drama and melodrama, erotica and pornography.

Additionally, straddling divides in form and content, Set Piece set an ambiguous tone neither wholly tragedy nor wholly comedy. Particularly in the sound design, with composition by Nina Buchanan and design by Daniel Herten, the continuous soundscape with bursts of pop hits amplified the Twilight Zone quality of the dialogue repetition creating a sense that the déjà vu was either titillating and/or tedious. At times, as the group sat around sharing drugs, the production took on the feeling of a vintage anti-drugs commercial, warning teens of the sad, boring trap that drugs would set for them. But that is also another kind of in-between of the ordinary and extraordinary, another space between exciting and mundane that Set Piece dug into.

Set Piece is running at Carriageworks from January 6th – 9th

Night Writes stands in solidarity with Palestinian people, activists, and BDS organisers as they call for a boycott of Sydney Festival 2022. Night Writes condemns the sponsorship of Sydney Festival by the Israeli Embassy as collaboration with an apartheid regime. By refusing to return the sponsorship, Sydney Festival has compromised itself and its programmed artists two years into a pandemic that has devastated the arts community. For more information and to sign the open letter, visit here. To read the statement made by Set Piece co-creators Anna Breckon and Nat Randall, visit here.

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