ANTICIPATION was high for the premiere of In The Pines last Thursday night at the Sir Robert Helpmann Theatre.
The production had been years in the making, with numerous grants to help bring the show to reality, a name change from the working tile of Cold as Ice and a concept long spruiked by Gener8 Theatre as the cornerstone of the fledgling theatre group’s output in Mount Gambier.
Audience members for the limited season knew they were in for something different at the theatre and this was clear from the moment they arrived and were not ushered to the usual seats, but instead taken down a corridor and onto the stage, seated behind the curtain.
A unique space had been created with the audience sitting up close to and surrounding the minimal set, which instantly drew them into the dramatic world created by the performers.
With no curtain to raise, the show started with a scene led by well-known Mount Gambier acting talent and story co-creator John Crouch delivering a speech in a mournful opening act.
The ensemble of characters became familiar as the back story was slowly set and it was not until a few scenes had played out that a key element of the show – crystal methamphetamine – was unceremoniously introduced, delivered into the story discretely with understated but irresistible (to the character) financial promise, as it must enter the lives of many ravaged by the insidious drug.
From there, the drug slowly took hold and dominated the storyline, from one character with promise descending into a frighteningly convincing junkie-haze, to his compellingly-played friend covering for him and being forced into a criminal underworld, through to a hapless husband whose life unravels after a bad decision.
Like a classic Greek tragedy, carefully scripted film or episode of Breaking Bad, the twists and pay-offs were expertly delivered as the story unfolded and it was clear from the moment “ice” was introduced to the lives of the characters, nobody would win, with the internal rush and come-down of the drug matched by outward displays of confidence followed by disarray and danger.
Members of the cast, most with significant links to the South East, expertly and convincingly delivered their scenes, from brief action sequences to dramatic dialogue and emotional outpourings.
But as the story became increasingly sinister, the piece de resistance was introduced for the final section of the play.
Audience members each donned virtual reality headsets under the guidance of cast and crew, making it one of the first shows globally to take the performance from the stage to the viewers’ individual journeys through the devices.
While new and innovative, the virtual reality component was no gimmick and despite the image being a little grainy compared to what is expected in our modern 4K – Ultra HD world, drew the viewer even deeper into the world inhabited by the characters, taking them into a drug den and other rooms and locations in which dramatic scenes unfolded.
While at times the viewer’s gaze was guided by lighting and action, each audience member could also direct their attention to different elements of the scenes as they were virtually in the rooms with the pre-recorded actors as their lives unwound, delivering immediacy and inescapable immersion in the story.
Gener8 took a major gamble on the technology, with significant costs and use of equipment that is still in development, but it definitely paid off as the audience was taken on a rollercoaster ride to the gripping, shocking and inevitable conclusion to the work.
Wanting to build further on their newly created theatre work, the cast and crew took questions from the audience at the end of the show in an open discussion on how use of the technology could be refined.
The show is very-much an adult experience with mature themes and heavy content throughout, woven together in a gripping and intense story.
While inspired by the heartache caused by the “ice” epidemic, it does not come across as a preachy public service announcement, instead delivering a compelling story, taking audiences into a dark world most do not experience and showing a regional group can create a piece of theatre as vibrant, modern and exciting as anything similar created anywhere else in the world.
Mount Gambier is not alone in facing the ice scourge – it is crippling families in regional communities across the nation, as well as major cities – but our region has proudly acted, hosting forums and forming community groups to battle the impacts of the insidious drugs.
It is welcome to see this innovation and focus on keeping the issue in the public eye driven further forward by a vibrant local theatre company willing to take a risk on delivering a contemporary story rooted in its environment in a truelly progressive way.
Producer/director Jamie Harding and the team he recruited to develop his vision and bring it to life over recent years would have walked away with a sense of pride, shared by the region, in what they have achieved.