REVIEW: Control by Keziah Warner – Red Stitch

The crew of a space ship, dressed in bold primary colours, rock from left to right in front of us, as they try to keep control of their craft. The group is racially diverse but it’s the white guy, a larrakin Aussie from Melbourne, who boldly steps forward to save the day. “It’s something I have to do.”

Keziah Warner’s Control, a science fiction triptych, begins with a scene of broad comedy, a nod to Star Trek and then jumps back in time to see how this crew ended up in such a dramatic situation. Starting a story in media res can be a pretty tired trope, but here Keziah uses it as a dramaturgical sleight-of-hand; this story is much more complicated than it first appears to be.

A pregnant woman, a puppeteer, a singer and a detective have been hand-picked to be on this space ship, leave Earth and strive to survive in “Fifteen Minutes on Mars” – a Big Brother-type reality show that is manoeuvring this ensemble toward interstellar cabin fever.

Twenty years later, in a library that promises to save your memories so you don’t have to, Nicki and Caroline poke and prod an android, trying to take back some control over their lives.

Thirty years further, on New Earth, Isabelle is programming Esta with emotions and insight and backstory, but not too much. Just the right amount. But it’s a tough time finding a balance that makes Isabelle feel alright that she’s writing and re-writing and re-writing the person that Esta is becoming.

Keziah Warner’s script is probing and insightful, with each of the stories reflecting on the others, playing and twisting the themes of control and identity. There might be a literal puppeteer in the first story, but there’s also the A.I. that’s controlling the contestants’ experience.

The women in the library in story two learn to pilot their android boss, making him dance. And Esta of part three is struggling with self-determination while Isabelle tweaks every aspect of her personality.

The cast is uniformly excellent. We get to see Christina O’Neill and Naomi Rukavina play three different characters, each of them beautifully drawn. Their back and forth as Isabelle and Esta, though, is the highlight of the show, with moments of tenderness alongside moments of true devastation in their complicated relationship.

Samuel Rowe injects a lot of humour into part one, with his laid-back character trying hard to be a hero. Dushan Phillips’ performance as the android in part two is a compelling vision of actorly control, every movement creating a moment and telling a story.

Julian Meyrick’s direction is, suitably, very controlled. He knows that there’s drama beneath the humour and humour beneath the drama. He finds and illuminates small moments of performance to illuminate the subtle dualities in the script, uncovering more and more layers as the show progresses.

Control was developed as part of Red Stitch’s INK program and Keziah Warner has clearly had strong support in crafting a deeply thoughtful, rich work of science fiction. Julian Meyrick’s production takes the excellent script and raises it another level, delivering one of the best shows I’ve seen on stage this year. If I can, I’m going to see this again.

Photos by Jodie Hutchinson