When the techie has to start the applause at the end of a show, you know it wasn’t a good night. I missed the super supportive opening night of Red Stitch’s About Tommy, so saw it with regular punters and it was one of those nights when something was missing.
Tommy is by Norwegian writer Thor Bjorn Krebs and was first performed in Copenhagen in 2003. The English translation by David Duchin has been seen in the UK and is premiered in Australia by Red Stitch. Based on the real experiences of young Danish UN Peace Keepers in Zagreb in the 90s – Norway has voluntary military service and its military are active in UN operations – it’s partly verbatim and documentary-style theatre, but is given enough fiction to create a compelling story.
Director Kat Henry immediately places it as a story for us by not using accents despite its being in a specific time and place. If only more directors thought this way. Maybe the choice was made so that they didn’t sound like the Sweedish chef on the Muppets (I know they are different countries), but maybe it was made because accents are just annoying and take away from the truth of a work.
The time and place comes from Hanna Sandgern’s design. She uses the small space inventively and has projections that create both space and intimacy. A TV set is front and centre and plays footage from the city at war. This is a war that most saw through televisions and it brings a reality to the stage, but I couldn’t see it. I was one seat away from the aisle and am tall enough to see over the people in front of me and I couldn’t see the central design element of the piece. I don’t understand why anyone would place something so vital to the emotional impact of overall work in a position where huge chunks of the audience won’t be able to see it. Even if there’s nothing important on the screen, you want to see what you can’t see and this kind of distraction takes away from the performers.
Matthew Whitty is Tommy, who’s excited to go and do good with the UN but is gradually broken when faced with the reality of watching unnecessary death and the restrictions of the force’s the self-defence code. Kate Cole and Paul Henri are his friends and fellow soldiers in Zagreb, his parents who are proud to let him go and others needed. Whitty captures the enthusiasm and frustration of a young man who saw too much, Henri’s ideal as Tommy’s best mate and Cole is especially engaging as the women in Tommy’s life.
But I wasn’t the only person who didn’t realise that the show was over when it ended. There was something distancing the work from the audience. For me, there wasn’t an emotional connection in the performances; I couldn’t see that connection to self that makes even something out of a performer’s life experience feel real. For all the trying to make it our story, it was still a story about “them”. We don’t go to the theatre to admire actors, we go to be told a story and the story got lost the night I saw About Tommy.