Feel it in your veins: a review of Cracked (Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company)

Barbara Hostalek’s aptly named Cracked is the story of cycles: the cycle that is drug addiction, the cycle that is incarceration, and the cycle our well meaning institutions ironically call ‘correction’ – removing ‘offenders’ from society, locking them up, giving them time to think about what they’ve done, depriving them of, well, almost everything, and issuing them a plan for how they will reintegrate into society before they’re released. We then shake our heads when they relapse and reoffend. As the director of Cracked (also Artistic Director of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company) Eva Grace Mullaley so poignantly puts it in a poem that prefaces the program, this is ‘not at all how it’s meant to be’.

Eva Grace Mullaley, together, I assume, with playwright Barbara Hostalek and dramaturg Polly Low have hit on the correct pace and style for this production. Barbara, Eva and Polly have highlighted a world of comings and goings, where stakeholders and ‘loved ones’ seem to orbit yet ‘act on’ convicted assailant and drug addict, Frances, played by Bobbi-Jean Henry. The assailant becomes the assailed, albeit psychologically, during her stay behind bars, where help and support seems to be something more than  offered. ‘Help and support’, in this case, seem part of the sentence – something the offender must endure, as we see Frances urged, at times obliged, to accept the help and support being ‘offered’ to her. However, it is questionable whether Frances actually wants help and support – or perhaps she’s not ready for it, or too proud to receive it. Perhaps all Frances really wants – consciously or despite herself – is her next hit. Frances is broken but does she really want to be ‘fixed’? The fact she has two children would indicate she has something to ‘live for’ and indeed she cites her children as the main reason she wants to get out but she passes up an arranged opportunity to see them while on parole by taking off with an acquaintance in order to score. Is Frances a prisoner to meth, or does she have a completely different worldview of how life is worth living? One would hope it’s the former and that she could eventually free herself from the drug’s clutches but the ending of the play suggests she won’t. The ending, in fact, grounds the play in such reality I would highly recommend seeing it if only for the powerful truth it communicates.

Barbara, Eva and Polly show us a human in a largely un-human (I deliberately avoid using the word ‘inhumane’) world despite the presence of a number of people who surround her, each of whom is not without a heart. Even the prison guard, solidly played by Luke Hewitt, has feelings – but despite all their yearnings and good intentions, the efforts of those who want the best for Frances are often thwarted. No matter how empathetic they are to Frances’ plight, the institution, with its structure and schemes, its policies and procedures, its forms and formalities – and the fact that Frances can’t read – make it difficult for them to help Frances change for the better. And they don’t seem to understand that getting Frances safely out of the prison that confines her physically is the least of their problems.

Bobbi-Jean Henry’s portrayal of Frances (‘Frankie’) might be a little too endearing. At times, she is more the capricious teenager, the rebellious high-school student railing against the school rules. Though we necessarily sympathise with the protagonist of a play, it is a bit too easy to side with Frances – she seems hard done by from the start – ‘society has failed her’ and the ‘system has failed her’, it seems. And, well, maybe it has. The bias isn’t helped by the other characters, all of whom seem to abide by her petulance for some reason. No-one really tells her in to pull her head in and we never really see her bear the full brunt of the institution that has deprived her of her liberty. In fact, Frances often seemed comfortably ‘above the law’ despite her angst, the result being that we never quite feel her plight though we can understand her circumstances. Bobbi-Jean Henry – indeed, Frances – seemed to hit her straps when she had her first argument with her estranged partner, Dwayne, played by Bruce Denny. ‘Frances’, the character, seemed to emerge strongly after she had told Dwayne to f#ck off. When Bobbi-Jean is in full flight as Frances, it is impossible to look away so I can only encourage her – as Frances, of course – to send them all to f#cking hell.

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Dwayne was also fairly endearing – we all love an unpretentious bogan – but although the facts about Dwayne were grim – no job, no money, no house, nothing really to offer Frances – he didn’t really seem to have any flaws other than his naïveté. Somehow, I think the ‘real’ Dwayne, if there is, or ever was one, would be a lot more dangerous. 

Three very well rounded characters were played by Holly Jones and Matthew Cooper (‘Edwina’, and ‘Joel’, two Corrections Officers) and Rayma Morrison (‘Aunty Pat’), who reaches out to Frances with the offer of support and accommodation. Holly Jones brings a good deal of empathy to the role of Edwina, Matthew Cooper communicates some of the stress, confusion, and frustration that go along with being a Corrections Officer, and Rayma Morrison shows Aunty Pat to be a woman of heart and wisdom – a woman to which the term ‘tough love’ could be applied.

Sara Chirichilli’s steely, jagged, and dissociated set works well to evoke prison and the impersonal office of the Correctional Officers. The central, turntable piece worked so well, I wondered if the steel steps in the background were actually needed. Going to and from Frances’ cell might have been represented simply by rotating the turntable to show the outside walls of the cell when the scene was not set in the cell. But this is a minor point. The desk was an essential item but the moving of it was arguably excessive. Perhaps other devices such as lighting – or no devices – could be used to represent the fact the desk was a different desk in different scenes. 

Karen Cook and Mia Holton were instrumental in rendering Frances’ dream sequence – a brooding ambience (thanks to lighting designer, Karen Cook) and a beautiful and bizarre landscape (courtesy of projection designer, Mia Holton) I’m sure the audience felt very much part of when Frances was dreaming. This was accompanied by sound designer Mei Swan Lim’s haunting and, at times, disturbing soundscape. Mei Swan Lim enhanced the visceral experience of the audience at other plaintive and piteous moments of the play as well.

This is a brilliant story with a very strong cast and it’s something I would gladly watch again both to enjoy it and in the hope for more. Despite the clearly competent acting, the play, overall, feels a bit safe. We, the audience, feel safe, and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t be limited to understanding the tragedy that is played out – we should be feeling it. And I think this can be achieved by making the smallest of adjustments: as actors, cooperate; as characters, don’t. 

Cracked

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