You Almost Had Me at Hello: Sydney Independent Theatre Company’s Say Hello First
The latest offering from the Sydney Independent Theatre Company is Danielle Maas’ piece of verbatim theatre, Say Hello First (2013). This is a play about relationships. Insofar as that goes, Maas offers us a kaleidoscopic tapestry of what the heterosexual relationship entails: flirting, sexting, over analysis of interaction, insecurity, loneliness, attraction … if it happens in a relationship it can be found in this play. And for the most part the material presented is well observed with a familiar ring. The scenes are presented in fragmented, stand-alone pieces with the actors Maas and Joe Kernahan adopting numerous personas (although as the play continues it increasingly becomes an observation of Maas’ reflections on her own life).
Surprisingly perhaps, is the number of techniques used that are more generally associated with Epic Theatre. The wall is plastered with copies of the script; the actors interact with audiences members, break out of character and talk to the tech-box operator. The fragmented nature of the scenes also prevents the audience from settling into the play’s world. Whether this was a deliberate move on the part of Maas and director James Langley is difficult to say, but it worked nicely for this piece.
However, the eternal problem of verbatim theatre is the challenge of developing a story. On this occasion Maas has a lot of fantastic material, and sitting alone each section works nicely, but as a whole the piece seems incomplete; there are no revelations to be found here (which Maas herself admits). There are some poignant moments, but the fact that they exist as isolated vignettes robs them of their full impact. Obviously, the purpose of this piece isn’t to do what a traditional play does (which is fair enough). Nevertheless, one does leave with a bit of a shrug because at no point is anything ever ‘at stake’ nor does the play ever really make a point.
For all this however, Say Hello First certainly entertains. Fart jokes, awkward moments on dates, audience participation, bit of light improv, a whole raft of quirky characters … oh and you get to see both of the actors’ butts. This is all well done and everyone involved should be commended for constructing a very entertaining piece of performance. In the end though, that’s all it is: a piece of performance, as opposed to life on stage.
As to the performers then: Danielle Maas is, quite simply, very talented. She is confident in all that she does, and is especially comfortable with her physicality and presence on stage. Further to this, she is wonderfully charismatic with a sharp tongue, obvious during her improvised stints. There is great power locked in this performer. Maas dives onto the stage and makes it her own. At times however, she is competing too much (and unnecessarily) for stage space. Maas could benefit from toning down the ‘acting’ in this production. Certainly, she has moments of truth and moments of clarity, but this is often buried by a need to ‘prove’ herself. It would have been lovely to see Maas relax a touch and let her guard down just that little bit more – as is quoted in the program: “we need to feel that what we are seeing is real. It isn’t just acting. It’s actually far more exacting than acting”.
Opposite Maas is Joe Kernahan as ‘everybody else’. Overall, Kernahan is a lovely performer. Whilst a little unsure in the opening segments, Kernahan really came into his own where he could (more or less) focus on the one character. Kernahan provided a slightly more nuanced performance, perhaps because he found other ways to communicate those ‘sad and angry’ emotions other than bursts and fits of rage. He was charming and pleasurable to watch, and slightly ‘smoother’ too, whereas Maas made for quite a raw experience (as was surely the intention). The main problem for Kernahan was that his earlier character changes lagged; as a colleague put it: they were “vague approximations” – funny, but not always insightful. To both Maas and Kernahan’s credit however, they held and entertained their audience for two hours, with only a 15 minute interval. They were energetic, vibrant performers, and are assuredly headed for a great and long career.
Worth a mention is the wonderful integration of audio-visual technology in the set, which hung as a series of ‘canvas screen picture frames’ on the back wall. Unlike many digital feats (see The Maids) this construction was effectively integrated into the show’s design, aiding without detracting from the performances, enabling delineation of particular male characters – especially helpful during the quick-fire scenes early on.
Say Hello First is certainly a daring piece, well worth the cost of the ticket. If you can get along to this rather sexy and funny show then you should, you will certainly be entertained, sans any revelations.
Say Hello First is playing at the Old Fiztroy Theatre until the 27th of July. For more information and bookings please see their site: http://www.sitco.net.au/whats_on.html