The Eisteddfod was the work that really kicked off the career of Melbourne-based playwright Lally Katz over a decade ago and its Perth debut by the Black Swan State Theatre Company directed by Jeffrey Jay Fowler is well overdue. Katz’s opera The Rabbits premiered in Perth a few years ago so it was good to see Katz in her home territory.

The Eisteddfod is a multi-layered work that depicts the claustrophobic lives of two orphaned children trapped in their memories and fears of the outside world. Or as Katz puts it in an authorial voice over that accompanies the work, it shows ‘their happy lives alone and afraid of the world together.”

Natalie Holmwood, Brendan Ewing. Photos by Daniel James Grant.

Katz’s script is loaded with this kind of sardonic melancholy, a humour that having no time for pathos cuts straight to the quick. She is OK with scenes twisting uncomfortably in and out of humour and pain as the siblings Abalone and Gerture play out their memories and longings through various fantasies.

Tyler Hill’s set was a large grimy room with a bunk bed, some wardrobes and a filthy toilet. Boxes litter the room packed with items of nostalgia and bringing a sense of temporary stasis, arrested development. Lucy Birkinshaw’s flouro lighting was overwhelming artificial, with no sense of daylight or fresh air. Brett Smith’s unobtrusive sound design included retro pop songs and a sweetly naive piano melody.

The plot revolved around Abalone’s desire to compete in an Eisteddfod together playing Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. Shakespearean soliloquies were rehearsed in thick Scottish accents, including a hilarious scene where Lady Macbeth invites Macbeth to dance and a small disco ball appears from under a box, accompanied by an eighties love song.

Brendan Ewing was a lanky, fragile Abalone. His large twitching hands and flexibly expressive face reminded me simultaneously of Johnny Depp, and also Garry McDonald in his moments of pathetic Mother and Son self interest. The ‘History of the Eisteddfod’ scene was delightful, Ewing revealing more through his body language about the characters than the competition.

Natalie Holmwood as Gerture was diminutive in every sense of the word, pining for her masochistic lover Ian, desperately seeking refuge in mediocrity and weary with frustration. Her warped understanding of life and love (“How can you not love someone after all the times you’ve touched arms in the ad breaks?”) begins to make sense as the fantasies are played out. “Be Ian”, she begs her brother, a little while later taking on the role of “Mum” for her brother in a world where hovering memories continue to break in, pinning and trapping them.

The performance in the Eisteddfod wasn’t the moment of dramatic triumph Abalone was hoping for, neither does it return his sister to him as he had planned. A quote from Macbeth “All our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death’” foreshadows the sad end.

It sounds grim, but it wasn’t. Katz has a Winton-esque ability to create characters whose messy lives are deeply loveable. Ewing and Holmwood give gripping, multi-hued portrayals for 70 minutes of deeply enthralling theatre.

The Eisteddfod by Lally Katz will run at Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre of WA until 9th July.

This review first published Limelight Magazine, June 2017.