Buoyed by the wave of international acclaim that has surrounded his recent work, playwright Henry Naylor rips into the Adelaide Fringe with Borders, the fourth in a series of plays set in the Middle East.
Naylor earned his satirical chops as lead writer on Spitting Image, a late-’80s TV show that hit politics where it hurt and achieved cult status among the disenfranchised yoof of Thatcher’s Britain. His Arabian Nightmare plays, however, are more complex beasts whose astute, poetic texts punch with one hand and stroke with the other.
Borders uses the experiences of two artists, British photo-journalist Sebastian (Graham O’Mara) and Syrian graffiti-artist Nameless (Avital Lvova), to highlight the farcical reality of a world separated by physical and mental borders.
Feisty, sullen Nameless moves from innocent teen to angry revolutionary, and is finally forced to flee her country or face death for protesting against its leader. Meanwhile, the affable, laddish Sebastian swaps an ethically-driven career taking photographs in war zones for a more lucrative one snapping celebrities, despite being hounded by his “conscience”, a veteran hack named Messenger.
Co-directors Michael Cabot and Louise Skaaning have stripped the set of all encumbrances, allowing the writing and acting to shine.
Skillful character blocking has the two actors criss-crossing the bare stage, addressing the audience from their separate worlds while convincingly transforming their only prop (two bar stools) into boat, van, cave and shop. Pertinently, the bolshy Sebastian, as celebrity-obsessed media hound, is more often to the front of the stage, shouting in the audience members’ faces, while Nameless remains in the background.
As the two characters’ lives move away from and back towards each other, the script shifts effortlessly between poetry, humour and nail-biting action. It’s superbly carried by Lvova and O’Mara, who deliver their roller-coaster monologues with an explosive energy that is utterly gripping.
There are moments when the satire edges uncomfortably towards farce (a dishevelled Messenger drunkenly lecturing Sebastian while Bono watches from a doorway, for example) but they are small blips in an otherwise perfectly-balanced play.
Pure, raw theatre that smashes through our mental borders and beckons us into a new world of understanding. Naylor – whose previous plays Echoes and Angel were hits at the 2016 and 2017 Fringe festivals – has nailed it again.
Borders is showing at Holden Street Theatres until March 18.
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