Hayley Lawson-Smith’s retelling of the Nativity is meandering and frustrating.
The cast of We Three. Photo: Teresa Noble.
Watching We Three is a bewildering experience. A retelling of the pilgrimage of the Magi to view Jesus at his birth, the story here is removed from any historic or cultural specificity: here is a desert where you can google the answers to your queries but for some reason you still navigate by the stars.
Strange anachronisms emerge everywhere. This is not a contemporary retelling – there are still kingdoms and kings and we carry our water in sheep’s bladders and not bottles – but it is not period either. Signifiers abound: a toy on each audience member’s seat, the stars, shepherds, kings, parties, ‘the East’, all potentially standing in for something but what remains unclear throughout.
A particularly telling exchange happens early in the piece when two characters, sat around a campfire, discuss the place in ‘the East’ where ‘decorations are made’ for ‘this time of year’ by people who don’t understand their significance. One character offers to look it up on Google but there’s no need as they’ve said apparently all they wish to say about this. Why they can’t name Christmas or China or Yiwu, the town where 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made, is unclear. Clues suggest that the characters (or perhaps playwright Hayley Lawson-Smith) read the 2014 Guardian exposé of the exploitation and environmental degradation wrought by manufacturing in Yiwu – but if you yourself had not seen the article when it went viral four years ago, it is unlikely you could follow the breadcrumbs to this conclusion. All meaning is frustratingly masked behind several layers of metaphor and double speak.
The play refuses to ever specify its setting or the backgrounds of its characters; all emerge from unnamed kingdoms. This is a huge problem in this context, because Christmas is not at all universal. It’s historically and culturally specific. The play’s various nods to inclusivity – such as replacing the three wise men with an elderly man, a pregnant woman and a drunk, all of various ethnicities – don’t help address the fact that there’s no attempt to include an audience unfamiliar with the original story in the show at all: if you were not already well versed in the details of the Nativity, much of the story would be completely meaningless to you. That said, the degree to which familiarity with the Nativity story would help isn’t certain, as anytime anything specific could be gleaned from the meandering dialogue of the play, it was pulled away again moments later. This desperate search for anything to grasp onto was not helped by the acoustics of the space which made it difficult to hear or understand the dialogue.
There were moments of levity thanks to the excellent performances from Andrea Mendez and Mohan Lakshmipathy, and the unique set design makes for some lovely theatre pictures, but not enough to redeem the performance which dragged at just 80 minutes.
2 stars out of 5 ★★
Writer: Hayley Lawson-Smith
Director: Eryn Kimberley
Dramaturgy: Vidya Rajan
Starring: Andrea Mendez, Mohan Lakshmipathy, Paul Wentford, Berk Ozturk
26 July-1 August 2019
Gasworks Art Park, Albert Park VIC