Caress/Ache is high drama – half ‘ripped from the headlines’ and half ‘personal relationships’. Unified by surtitles explaining the synapses and receptors on our skin that allows us to experience touch, the action slides from character to character, all of them in crisis. Unfortunately, it’s unimaginative and emotionally manipulative.
There’s Mark (Ian Stenlake), the middle-aged, upper-middle class doctor who lost a patient in surgery and is thoroughly punishing himself for it. There’s his wife Libby (Helen Christinson), who he doesn’t touch anymore and she plays, of course, the disappointed, yearning wife who just doesn’t understand his manly, complex pain. There’s Cameron (Gary Clementson), who cheated on Saskia (Christinson), and who can’t tell the truth about it to save his relationship. There’s Cate (Sabryna Te’o), the single mother who’s a newbie at the sex line, overseen by world-weary, been-there-done-that Belinda (Zoe Carides). There’s Arezu (Te’o), who feels she’s been unfairly denied her homeland and heritage because her family won’t talk about their lives in Iran, and there’s Alice (Carides), whose son is about to be executed for whichever crime he committed in Singapore.
They are stereotypes and stock characters all, speaking in that particularly florid brand of dialogue that’s half-stylistic, half-idealistic, and all awkward; the audience burst into awkward giggles in some of the more broadly dramatic moments, like Saskia’s pleas to her cheating lover. (And of course all Saskia really does is plea and look betrayed; she doesn’t even really get to have any strength when she makes a decision about her future with Cameron).
The overarching feeling of the play, the uniting concept, is that we forget that touch has the power to heal as well as hurt, that the denial and abundance of touch and sensory experience changes our worlds. But Caress/Ache doesn’t really say anything new or interesting about any of these things. Saskia and Cameron are every single white middle-class couple that’s ever had relationship issues on the stage, and Mark is every honourable man who feels he’s failed his own code of honour. (He says he promised the mother of the child he lost that the child would be fine – just to add to his pain – but that doesn’t really seem like a move any surgeon would ever make, not least for litigious reasons). Cate and Belinda are largely the comic relief of the play, because sex work is funny, and really that entire storyline is only there so Mark can call in and ask Cate to touch her face and tell him that she feels alive, demonstrating his complicated relationship with intimacy even further, in case we hadn’t picked it up from both his brooding and his marital discord.
Arezu’s plotline, where the childhood gift of a book of poems in Farsi has sparked her interest in Iran, her exploration into ‘joining the fight’, wearing hijab, and trying to get her family on board, peters out at the airport as her flight to Tehran is delayed. She crosses paths here with Saskia who is carrying Cameron’s poetry and breaking down on the way to her flight to London (for some reason). Arezu helps her pick up spilled pages of poems and it sparks some sympathy in her. Almost wordlessly, she comforts a crying Saskia, offering her words of comfort in Farsi. And that’s when the sole character of colour is ultimately used only to soothe the white girl; we later hear Arezu on the phone to her mother (after learning she is the product of rape, no less) but she is given no real resolution; another storyline overtakes the spotlight and Arezu’s voice fades away, and she is left in limbo. But she’s helped Saskia out, so that’s all that matters.
Mark, too, gets his benediction, but of course it comes in the denouement of the play, because of course he’s the most important character, and he finds his own peace of mind in the embrace of Alice, sharing the hug that she was denied with her son prior to his execution. This plot, uncomfortable in its currency on opening night, hours after Myuran Sukumaran and Andrew Chan were escorted to the island of Nusa Kambangan to await their execution in Indonesia following incarceration for drug charges, only ended up being frustrating. It seems to be in the play purely to tug at the very real heartstrings of audiences who are invested in public pleas for clemency and human life, because there’s no real commentary or attempt to make a point. It’s sensational for sensation’s sake. Again, like with Arezu, this plot only ends up serving the redemption and release for another white, well-off character, whose stakes in the play are much, much lower than Alice’s, or her son’s.
Caress/Ache is well-intentioned, to be sure, and Suzie Miller has written something that manages to crest and ride a particular emotional wave; the tears through the audience on opening night have probably given many audience members a much-needed release considering the state of the world and the uneven state of all of our lives, where touch too often becomes a commodity we’re denied, but there’s nothing new in this play – there are no compelling ideas in this play, and when there’s no attempt to tell human stories in a way that we haven’t seen a dozen times before, it’s very hard to care about this particular configuration.
Te’o, as Cate/Arezu, is the best thing about this play because she elevates her material into something that feels realistic and three-dimensional. She balances humour with apprehension very well as Cate, and her Arezu is visibly drowning in the conflict of being her parents’ hope for the future and defining her own future. She makes the play much, much easier to bear.
Anthony Skuse directs and his usual razor-tight sense of tension falls into something so gentle it’s downright flat here; when characters fade in and out, and linger within each other’s scenes, it feels toothless rather than a thread of human connection linking scenes. From Mark’s opening monologue, which Stenlake doesn’t quite deliver successfully, the tone is set at an urgent outpouring emotion, and it doesn’t slow down – sort of a soap opera for the stage, but with inconsistent stakes (and inconsistent investment in those stakes) and characters who have nothing new to say.
Of course the mother about to lose her son to execution almost lost her son in a tragic beach accident years before; that means she can talk about pleading for a second chance with him, only to have it end the way it will end. Just like has happened a thousand times in popular culture and media. Of course Saskia was cheated on while she sacrificed a party to visit Cameron’s autistic nephew. Of course Belinda is wryly unfazed by said nephew, who of course is Cate’s son. Of course Libby buys oysters and clumsily tries to seduce her grieving husband, Mark. This isn’t universality, it’s laziness. It’s using every beat that’s been used before and not bothering to breathe new life into them.
Caress/Ache asks you to care about these characters, but doesn’t really give you any reason to do so. It tugs on your toughest memories and uses those instead of any real shaping or development of the plots onstage. It’s frustrating.