Rocket Man (subtlenuance) runs at the Tap Gallery from July 4 -14 2013. Written and directed by Paul Gilchrist.
There is a lot going on in Rocket Man. Perhaps too much. It is only 65 minutes long, but in that time, it covers art and violence, sex and psychopathy, lies and mirrors, friendship, symbolism, and truth, as well as managing to be incredibly meta- theatrical. The danger of cramming a play full of so much stuff is that it will drown the story. That doesn’t quite happen here – this is an engaging show, which I enjoyed a lot – but on occasion, it treads a fine line.
The first character we meet is the rocket man of the title, Neil (Daniel Hunter). He has met a girl, Veronica (Sylvia Keays), an actor. (Neil is not an astronaut, but he tells that when he meets girls who say that are actors). It is the morning after the night before and they are in her bedroom. She is asleep, and he is going through her things, perusing the detritus of her life. When she awakes, late for a reading (not an audition), they have a conversation about art that spirals into something much different and darker, growing to include Veronica’s flatmate Claudia (Alyssan Russell), who is a casualty nurse, and Claudia’s boyfriend Justin (Stephen Wilkinson), who has known Neil since school. Veronica believes that art – specifically, theatre, her chosen profession – is a tool for good, revealing hidden truths and changing the world. Neil vehemently disagrees: something that ends up revealing a great deal more about him than perhaps he intended.
The narrative impetus of this play comes from gradually unpeeling the layers of Neil’s personality. While he initially seems quite charming and open, as the play progresses, something far more sinister begins to emerge. Daniel Hunter plays this role with aplomb. He is maybe a little too shout-y at the very end, but otherwise, he balances the charisma and darkness of his character wonderfully. I have a feeling Justin might have been intended to be a little more sympathetic than he actually was, and Veronica seemed to be a little slow on the uptake at times, but otherwise, the other characters are also well-drawn and well-played. In particular, the sharehouse dynamic was immediately familiar and believable, with its constant alarm clock beeping and careful negotiation of shower time.
Where Rocket Man falls down is the places where it becomes most overtly didactic. The dispute between Neil and Veronica about art is very important, but in places, it feels like an essay rather than an organic argument. It feels like an editorial voice breaking through the wall of the text, inserting Important Points About Art into a story where they do not necessarily belong. Unfortunately, this happens particularly at the crisis between Neil and Veronica, when we (and she) finally begin to realise that there is something deeply wrong about this man. This should be an incredibly interesting and tense moment, imbued with psychological weight and complexity, but it gets swamped. At one point, Claudia asks Justin derisively if he did not understand the subtext of Neil and Veronica’s argument. It’s hard to blame him: a lot of that subtext is drowned in pontificating about art.
This is not to say that the points this show makes about art are bad, because they’re not – there’s just too much of it. If this play was redrafted again and pared back a bit, I think it would improve both the psychological impact and the actual arguments about art. In this case, I think less might turn out to be more. The early discussion Neil and Veronica have is interesting both on a textual and subtextual level, revealing their characters as well as their views about art – if this level could be maintained throughout the whole show, I think the problem with the narrative being swamped would be mitigated.
Rocket Man is deeply self-aware, and there are a lot of references to debates currently taking place about adaptations and auteur directors and the general theatre culture of Sydney. I’m normally not a fan of this level of metatheatricality, and there are sections which feel like a long exercise in I SEE WHAT YOU DID THERE. However, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this aspect of the show. Normally, I find meta stuff self-indulgent, but in the context of the discussion about art, it was pointed and entertaining. Kudos.
Overall, I liked this show a lot. I feel like if the didactic bits in the script were pared back a little, shaving maybe five or ten minutes off the show, then Rocket Man would be dynamite: powerful, psychologically complex, and intense. As it is, it is still very good, but at times, it runs the risk of collapsing under its own weight.