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May 6, 2021

Directing the Upside Down River

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Thomas Murray and Bjorn Stewart Francesca Savige
Thomas Murray’s Bjorn Stewart and Francesca Savige

Invoking the expansive, isolating beauty of rural Australia, Reg Cribb’s epic new play Thomas Murray and The Upside Down River is about a man ravaged by drought, family secrets and love.

The play is coming direct to NORPA from its Sydney Griffin Theatre premiere. The Echo spoke with show director, Chris Bendall.

As a director what do you look for in a piece? What was it about Reg Cribb’s play that interested you?

As a director, I’m looking usually for two things: firstly, a story that I want to share with an audience – and that may be about the themes or ideas that a work tackles, or an original story or slice of history that I’m excited to share; and secondly that it does this in a way that is creatively exciting both for me and the artistic team working on the piece and also potentially for an audience.

Thomas Murray was a work that I had wanted to tackle for a few years now. It has rich and hugely relevant themes, a gripping story, terrific characters, cracking dialogue – and Reg has crafted this all in a form that’s really intriguing and inventive. It’s a memory play in the first act, and becomes an odyssey in the second act that starts to get quite surreal and wonderfully playful.

What are the bigger themes that you wanted to develop?

This is a play with big themes about who we are as a country, about a region facing the impacts of drought, about the changing nature of our relationship to the land, and about our responsibility to confront past wrongs committed against the Indigenous owners of the land. It’s a play that deals with someone uncovering his family’s history, and his own sense of responsibility, complicity and guilt.

How do you go about crafting ‘spaces’ in your performance – those moments that just linger?

This is something that I think evolves fairly organically from the text and the performers in the rehearsal room and being in tune with the emotional current of the work. Finding when to give a work space to breathe, and for an audience to connect with it, and when to push forward.

What is the key to the emotional intensity in this play?

It’s a highly emotionally charged play. There’s a personal story of a love triangle, with profound friendships under immense strain, as well as the larger political story embedded in Thomas Murray’s family history.

Tell me about the landscape that frames this piece and how you bring it to the stage.

The landscape of the play is really central to the meaning of the work and we wanted to evoke the sense of the land and the river through the the set, lighting and sound, as well as creating a space for the stories buried underneath the river to come to the fore.

I love the idea of the wooden ramp for the stage. How does that work, both physically and conceptually?

It’s a great central device, shaped like a triangle, that creates an immediate tension for the action to take place on. It gives Thomas Murray a space to travel up and down as he journeys downstream – and it holds quite a few surprises in it too that are revealed over the course of the play.

What about the actors – what were you pushing them to achieve in their performances during the rehearsal process?

The actors get pushed quite a lot in this work actually; it is of course always exciting for an audience to watch actors really stretched to the limit. Not only is there a huge emotional roller-coaster ride but it’s a pretty physical production, especially for Grant (Cartwright) and Frankie (Savige), who also have a couple of terrific dances! The other three actors have the challenge of playing multiple roles, sometimes with very fast turnarounds; there’re lots of super-fast costume-change action happening backstage! I love plays that really stretch the ability of an actor to completely transform physically, and this gives a real opportunity for that for Vanessa, Nico and Bjorn.

What were your biggest challenges?

There were many! The story isn’t told chronologically; it starts at an absolute crisis moment for Thomas Murray and then flashes back through a series of memory sequences to reveal how we arrived at this place of crisis. So there were dramaturgical challenges and directorial ones, shaping the story and the work to make sure that the story was clear in all this. In the second act the play shifts gears quite noticeably too, as Thomas starts to lose his mind and we end up with the appearance of ancestors past in the form of ghosts and even a talking (dead!) sheep!

Tell me about what the actors bring to the piece. Is there something about each of them that expands the work that was once on the page?

The actors are incredible and really do a wonderful job in this work. They were all heavily involved in the development of the play and production for its world premiere season at Griffin in January this year, developing the complexity of their own individual characters and journeys and bringing their own personalities to the piece. Grant Cartwright is really quite awe-inspiring in the central role, bringing remarkable reserves of energy and emotional depth to the work. It’s a really riveting central performance.

How did you prepare your actors? What were the deeper places you wanted them to take their performances to?

We had a wonderful rehearsal process – a highly collaborative process that everyone was very committed to and supported everyone exploring the full complexity, depth and humour of the piece on the rehearsal room floor.

How does humour sit in this piece?

It may sound surprising considering the themes I’ve described, but it’s actually a truly laugh-out-loud funny play. This comes to Reg’s wonderful knack with language, and crafting very relatable and recognisable characters. There are some truly hilarious lines throughout, and so it’s quite a roller-coaster ride of comedy and thrilling tension throughout.

What should audiences expect for the Lismore shows?

We had such a wonderful response from audiences during its premiere season in Sydney. I think audiences in Lismore should expect to laugh, cry, think and be moved, and be swept up in an edge-of-your-seat thrilling story.

Friday 15 April, 7.30pm, Saturday 16 April, 2pm & 7.30pm.

NORPA at Lismore City Hall. Bookings: 1300 066 772 or www.norpa.org.au.

Meet writer Reg Cribb and director Chris Bendall after the Friday night show. Saturday matinee $40 ticket includes Devonshire tea.

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