Review: Wildskin, NORPA

Richard Watts

The latest NORPA production draws on road movies and horror movies to explore the fine line between finding yourself and losing yourself in the hinterland.
Review: Wildskin, NORPA

Photo credit: Darcy Grant

Exploring the fine line between finding yourself and losing yourself, the latest NORPA production fuses text-based drama, physical theatre, comedy and song to create a vibrant work that’s part road movie, part horror movie, and an irresistible celebration of place.  

From the outset, Wildskin inverts the key tradition of the road movie, which traditionally focus on hyper-masculine experiences. Here, the protagonist is Eva (played by a rotating team of cast members, as if to illustrate the universality of her story) who has grown tired of her hectic city life and needs some time apart from her boyfriend, Joe.

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She takes to the road, and in the tradition of the genre, encounters an array of characters and scenarios, both helpful and harmful, as her real journey – the journey of self-discovery – begins.

The production’s integration of a dynamic physical vocabulary (embodied by the fluid presence of dancer Viviane Frehner and fellow cast members, under the watchful eye of movement director Darcy Grant) is impressive, and quickly evident. Early in the piece, a yoga studio sequence sees yoga mats wrapped around the performers’ heads, turning them into threatening beasts – a foreshadowing of encounters to come – and held aloft to represent the looming skyscrapers of the city which our protagonist is preparing to flee.

This sequence and those subsequent to it also strongly convey the group dynamic which underlies this devised work, as Eva is outfitted and dressed by her compatriots in preparation for her journey – boots slid on by friends, rape whistle provided by another. She may not be ‘Leaving On A Jet Plane’ but she’s certainly leaving familiar confines – a recipe for disaster that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched Wolf Creek.

Photo credit: Darcy Grant

As Eva’s journey truly gets underway, she meets unsettling children, blokey cops, overly intimate backpackers, talkative roadkill, and a threatening stranger whose dog is ominously named. Some sequences evoke mundane nightmares all too familiar to anyone who’s tried to set up a tent in the dark; other scenes recall, and subvert, nightmares of a more visceral kind.

Elsewhere the production evokes the more sensual aspects of road movies, referencing the young Brad Pitt’s scene-stealing role in Thelma and Louise – albeit with a happier ending. Throughout, Wildskin embraces comedy, drama and song, the melange of theatrical forms fusing together cohesively and successfully under the watchful eye of director Julian Louis.

As is often the case with opening nights, the production felt a little loose; subsequent performances will doubtless see flat spots tightened and the overall pace accelerate. Editing down the opening sequences might also assist in strengthening the work – Wildskin didn’t quite find its groove until Eva’s journey truly got underway. A latter sequence set in a laundrette, which presumably aimed for poignancy, also fell somewhat flat.

When the production is at its best, however, such flaws are easily forgotten. A stinging monologue by Nicci Wilks as Eva, delivered from the back of a kombi van and condemning relationships as she perceives them, resulted in hoots of laughter, as did the first appearance of an endearing police duo (their second appearance, however, evoked the law of diminishing returns). Whip-cracking, dance, acrobatics, and clever reversals of horror movie tropes also further enrich proceedings.

Previous NORPA productions have powerfully explored place through site-specificity; here, Louis translates that approach into a proscenium arch presentation that could easily be toured without losing the palpable sense of locality which informs the work. 

Inventive, playful, accessible and life-affirming, Wildskin is a compelling reminder that old stories can always be reinvented, and that works of rigor and insight are regularly made on stages across this country – not just in our capital cities.

3 ½ stars: ★★★☆

Wildskin
Performers/Devisors: Viviane Frehner, Bianca Mackail, Katia Molino, Olivia Porter and Nicci Wilks
Director: Julian Louis
Story & Writer: Hattie Dalton
Dramaturg & Writer: Janis Balodis
Movement Director: Darcy Grant
Associate Director: Caroline Dunphy
Story research & development: Kate McDowell
Set & Costume Design: Charlotte Haywood
Lighting design: Sian James-Holland
Sound Design: Tegan Nicholls
Stage Manager: Jessica Frost

NORPA at Lismore City Hall
27 September – 6 October
norpa.org.au

The writer travelled to Lismore as a guest of NORPA.

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's Performing Arts Editor and Team Leader, Editorial; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R.

The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the Committee of Management for La Mama Theatre, on the board of literary journal Going Down Swinging, and on the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel. He is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and in 2017 was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Festival Living Legend.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts