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theatre review: the lake

Ben Brooker’s The Lake was first performed in a rehearsed reading by last year. This year it premieres with a full production by in The Arch, a small old church at Holden Street Theatres. Before entering we are given a small torch and told to use it to find our chairs and to help light the performance, with permission given to keep it on throughout the show. The space is dark and cluttered, and the torch helps us to weave through and climb to the stage.

The exact story is difficult to nail down, but it isn’t the focus of the production. Joseph (Brad Williams) sits onstage as we enter, sprawled across a chair and snoring lightly. Following the rest of the audience, I cross the stage. We are seated snugly on either side of the performance space, which is littered with rubbish and a collection of objects: a brazier, a trunk, some old books. Designer Manda Webber has created an appropriate world of squalor for Joseph and Karl (Matt Crook), who are tasked with guarding The Man. Locked away unseen, The Man’s nature is revealed in a recorded message at the beginning of the play – he is apparently abhorrent.

His two captors aren’t exactly robust brutes, having been apparently worn down after their service of unknown length. Karl is uncertain and curious, recording interesting facts in a notebook and collecting various items that may be useful for their stay. Joseph is stronger but irritable, and charged with the more physical aspects of their watch: he enters the room containing the prisoner armed with an axe on two occasions. After the second time, it is not Joseph but The Man (Patrick Frost) who reappears. The Man is well dressed and less neurotic than Karl, and the two continue to occupy the space while Joseph’s fate remains unknown.

While exact details are never revealed, the play’s intrigue is influenced by the world depicted. It is open to interpretation but seems to be some kind of dystopia, with references to ‘the haze’ hinting at a state of massive degradation. The characters are constantly dirty, cold and hungry. Within this framework, Brooker explores aspects of human relationships. The depiction of prisoner and guard parallels the observations of the Stanford prisoner experiment, with the guards becoming desperate enough to do anything. The open nature of the story means your own take away may be different; mine was: what happens as the world could be ending, and what do we do to make ourselves feel better about it?

It might sound dire and it certainly has many serious moments, but The Lake is also funny. The characters’ wry observations inject a dark humour, which is nicely highlighted by director Edwin Kemp Attrill. As the two guards, Crook and Williams are perfectly matched in their contrariety, not just physically, but vocally. Frost’s first appearance is foreboding and his quiet type of strength contrasts nicely with what we are told of his character.

Some of the torches were turned off during the show, but those left on created a moving barrier between audience and stage. The small changing shadows they made also enhanced the feeling that the play’s world was almost familiar to ours. Stage lighting by Chris Petridis keeps the space just dark enough for a deteriorating, dirty world. There is a lack of clarity in the story that is definitely challenging. It would perhaps be satisfying to know what exactly happened to Joseph. However, there is a lot of food for thought, and solid performances from the cast.  The Lake is an interesting new work presented with unique style.

‘The Lake’, presented by, plays at Holden Street Theatres in Adelaide until November 23. Tickets from $20 at Venuetix or at the door.

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