Theatre review: Terrestrial, Adelaide Festival Centre
Fleur Kilpatrick’s Terrestrial, directed by Nescha Jelk for the State Theatre Company of South Australia, is a story about memory, friendship and aliens set in an Australian desert mining town.
Through a narrative frame structured like nesting Russian dolls, witness testimony on the extraterrestrial disappearance of a teenager gradually gives rise to accounts of fear and loneliness, which, in turn, hold fragile experiences of hope and compassion. The effect is uncanny because, as if set on repeat, the story throbs like a beating heart.
Terrestrial plunges us in the psychological space of 15-year-old Liddy (Annabel Matheson), who longs to leave Earth and fly across the Milky Way to get as far away as possible from her abusive father. For nearly ten years now, she has been on the move with her mum.
The surroundings of the small mining town where they seek safety resemble Mars. In her writer’s notes, Kilpatrick reflects on the ways “landscape informs how our trauma, confusion, illness or fear manifests itself. What happens when you’re scared and all you have is an endless sky to escape into? You look up.” The vast, star-studded sky is the only thing to keep Liddy company in her isolation. She cannot accept that it might be empty because if life has taught her anything at all it is “how possible the impossible actually is”. She is convinced that if her father can find her, so can aliens who can save her from him.
The only other teenager in this remote mining town is Badar (Patrick Jhanur), who also projects a growing anxiety onto the landscape. Son of Muslim immigrants, for whom the desert and the mine spell safety, and part of a caring family, Badar has no other home. For him this place is magical, despite the impending closure of the mine, the growing number of ghost houses (“empties”), and increasing loneliness.
Charming and compassionate, sensitive to what she cannot say, Badar welcomes Liddy into his world and patiently teaches her what it means to be a friend. It takes only a month and 99 lessons, to be specific. “Be kind,” he asks Liddy. Stay on Earth with me, she hears, we’ll keep each other safe.
Only the alien messes things up on the night the mine closes down. With a rifle Badar found in one of the empties, Libby fires straight up into the sky, “the last beacon on a sinking ship”. And the alien finally reveals itself, known to Libby all along. But, instead of taking her away, it takes Badar.
Now she must make sense of it all and tell things in a way that the investigator (the pre-recorded voice of Patrick Frost) would understand. How can she recall all she’s been trying to suppress?
Most science fiction fans would agree that the best representatives of the genre are great not only because they compellingly imagine what might be out there - they imagine, too, the present world and our place in it differently.
Terrestrial accomplishes this spatially. Each location to which the stage transports us represents one of Liddy’s nesting memories. These are intersecting planes of experience, dominated by the harsh fluorescent overhead light and concrete besser-block interior of the interrogation room, the blindingly bright sunlight of a desert day, the spooky flashlight beam exploring empties, or the gentle twinkle of the Milky Way in the dark sky or reflected in the water of the nearby reservoir.
A two-tone wall brings to life the colours of the night desert, serving also as a contrasting projection surface for the investigator’s recording of Liddy’s interview. Like the wall, Liddy’s recollections are divided into truths she can tell others and memories no one – not even she! – must see.
Meg Wilson’s uncomplicated, yet elegant set and Chris Petridis’ evocative lighting immerse us in the realities Liddy and Badar share, juxtaposing them with the stifling spaces where the teenagers no longer feel safe. Andrew Howard’s sound design signals emotional transitions, drawing attention to Liddy’s delicate encounters with kindness or harshly punctuating her painful recollections of inimical spaces, adding to them a layer of mystery, perhaps an allusion to the alien’s presence in the girl’s life.
Under Nescha Jelk’s capable direction, Annabel Matheson and Patrick Jhanur create characters who pulsate with life. Matheson’s Liddy transforms from a snippy and withdrawn teenager into someone who can open up to allow a friend in her life. Jhanur’s teasing playfulness gradually exposes Badar’s growing wound, caused by the loss of his home. We feel with their characters.
Like Liddy’s memories, Matheson and Jhanur’s are nuanced and multilayered performances that will resonate with the young audiences for whom the show is intended.
Terrestrial is currently playing at the Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, until June 2.