REVIEW: Moth by Declan Greene – Theatre Works

Sebastian and Claryssa are friends, though they often feel like they are clinging to each other, as the outcasts at school, desperate for companionship. He’s a nerd, in the era when nerd culture was breaking through to the mainstream, but is harassed because it’s easy to pick on the soft boy because he’s probably gay. Claryssa is a goth wiccan and dresses in a way that gets her called out in the schoolyard. They support each other, but in the struggle not to be the least popular at school, their friendship is fragile at best.

Moth by Declan Green was first produced by Arena Theatre at the Malthouse in 2010 and has since gone on to be produced across Australia, the UK and the United States. It’s an appealing two-hander, where the actors/characters also take on the roles of other people in their lives. But there’s a fun storytelling element to the doubled-up performances, where Sebastian and Claryssa might exaggerate those other characters for affect – to the annoyance of the other.

In 2023, the play is on the VCE Drama list, meaning school kids across Victoria will study Declan’s writing and are able to see it in all of its messy, teen angst glory at Theatre Works, directed by Briony Dunn. At opening night, most of the audience were teenagers or young adults, ready to support a work that speaks to them through the prism of a play that still feels very much set in 2010.

Declan’s solo writing work has grown and evolved beyond this simple story of two teens suffering through school, almost but not quite managing to be there for each other. Having loved Declan’s plays at the Malthouse like Pompeii L.A. and I Am Miracle, it’s nice to be able to experience one of his early works – which I’d heard so much about a decade ago.

The script is strong, especially for such an early work by the writer, though there might be too much reliance on allusions and metaphor to strengthen or embellish a straightforward story. And while the ending is powerful, it feels almost too neatly wrapped up.

But the layered, knotty, complicated, well-drawn characters are a must see – a pair that will inspire lots of discussion by school kids everywhere, especially if they can see themselves in the text and on stage. Outsider characters might be a staple of school dramas, but rarely are they so spiky, forthright and on the brink of disasters of flesh, body and spirit.

Briony Dunn’s production is shadowy and sparse, guiding the actors through the text with a sure hand. Adam Noviello’s Sebastian swings from expressive to repressed, bringing the interiority of the character out in surprising ways. Lucy Ansell’s Claryssa makes bold choices for a character who keeps a lot of stuff to herself. Together, both actors dance around, poking and prodding the other into a stunning pair of performances.

Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design is evocative and moving, startling and magical throughout. As the play edges further into magical realism, Pajanti brings to life some of the fantasy sequences from Christian’s mind in truly extraordinary ways. Darrin Verhagen’s sound design was effectively moody though later in the play, as things get more hectic for the characters, I was losing bits of the dialogue under Verhagen’s soundscape.

Moth feels like a product of its time – a trip back to 2010, when Facebook was really the only social media and kids were only starting to get bullied by digital means – but it’s still a fascinating study of how kids learn to find their own superpowers, even when they end up completely overwhelmed.

It was also a joy to overhear some of the reactions of the students in the audience last night and after, so excited about theatre and a play that speaks so directly to them. Happy that they get to study a contemporary Australian work and not get stuck with anything too staid or traditional. Moth is neither of those things. It’s exciting and challenging and this production is wonderful.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

Moth flits and flies toward the light at Theatre Works until June 3.

Photos: Daniel Rabin