Elbow Room’s latest production is based on the life and work of science-fiction writer Samuel R. Delany. The author’s unusual relationship with his wife Marylin Hacker is depicted against the backdrop of an intolerant American society on the verge of the cultural revolution of the late 60s. Delany is gay and black, while Hacker is “just a girl” – they are both others, and not trying to fit in. Hacker is aware and accepting of Delany’s sexual orientation, and openly gay herself. Both writers, they embark together on a journey of literary and sexual self-expression.
Their story runs parallel to another. As we watch Delany at work we witness the fruit of his imagination: we are on a spaceship in the distant future, an inter-galactic war is raging on, as we follow ship captain Rydra Wong and her crew in their effort to win the conflict. Their enemies have developed a language, Babel-17, which is also a weapon: learning it alters perception and thought, turning the heroine into a traitor against her own will.
Shifting between poetry and a fictitious futuristic language, between linguistic theory and direct narration, the actors handled this difficult text well. Emily Tomlins stood out for me in her role as narrator, with touches of that magic we can expect from such a wonderful performer.
Employing clever use of projection, lighting and sound, the set design was minimalist yet very effective in depicting several different situations across the two separate timelines.
However, I felt slightly disoriented by the language and by the multitude of characters and locations in the spaceship story, therefore I could not follow the plot entirely.
The play is ambitious in its scope and thought-provoking, playing with issues of gender, sexuality and race in a touching and humorous way. Overall, it is an impressive work of contemporary performance by one of Australia’s most exciting ensembles.