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Review: Skin Tight on Australian Stage

This review of Skin Tight was written by Penelope Broadbent for Australian Stage. See it in its original context here.

The term ‘emotional journey’ is liberally used (and misused) in many aspects of modern culture and in the performing arts it is a promise to the audience that is rarely fulfilled. On hearing, reading, or using this term, many of us cringe. This is a great shame because every so often there comes a work that really does take its audience through a range of emotions or to varying “places” of emotion, as they follow its story, characters, and mood. Skin Tight, a predominantly New Zealand production at fortyfivedownstairs, achieves just this, and it does so in a most intriguing fashion.

Playwright Gary Henderson was inspired by The Magpies, a rather brief but well known poem by New Zealand poet Denis Glover. The poem describes the devastating effects of the Great Depression, particularly on farming. In Skin Tight, Henderson has included the characters’ recollections of a pastoral idyll but his focus is on the love story between the two characters from the poem, Tom and Elizabeth.

Tom (Michael Whalley) and Elizabeth (Holly Shanahan) are dressed in simple, faded, farming clothes. There are metal tubs and buckets of water that are used to wash, clean and purify – clothes, faces, fruit and bodies. There are crispy green apples and juicy plums – being gorged on, squished, and thrown. At one end of the triangular set is a wind-up record player, on which Tom plays the music of the early to mid 1900s, in which time the play is set. Yet the ground, rather than being of straw or grass, is strewn with well-worn clothes. It is one of the many incongruities in this play and is just one indication that aside from the characters’ moments of recollection, the very actions with which we are presented are not necessarily from the time that we would expect.

Making this play so unique is the type of tug-o-war that surrounds it. It exists within the play, physically and emotionally between the two characters, but is also created by the play itself. A curious pushing and pulling of the audience’s own feelings toward the characters and the mood presented is inescapable. To begin there is bright lights and loud, modern music. Tom and Elizabeth are wrestling each other, slapping each other. It is an overtly rough, even ugly, scene. Neither character seems likeable; both are petulant and unusually childlike. Elizabeth is particularly brash and unforgiving and though she has a tough boyishness to her she has an astute awareness of her own sexuality and its potential to overpower Tom. Throughout the play however, the characters’ moods and interaction with each other take they, and the audience, through moments that are highly charged with physical and verbal banter, spite, passion, sensuality, and reminiscence. Whilst the intensity doesn’t wane, that which started off as quite alienating becomes tender and engaging. The result is an ending that, though not unexpected, is incredibly moving.

Skin Tight creates a sense of just how easily boundaries and definitions can be crossed and blurred, in time and space, but also physically and emotionally. Particularly arresting is its depiction of the fine line between passion and danger and how far the physical boundaries between two people can be pushed when they know each other too well. The weapon of choice is a paring knife. With it, the simple act of Elizabeth shaving Tom’s face whilst they converse becomes precarious and borders on the erotic. The knife also supplies Elizabeth with the tool for an exceedingly dangerous game of cat and mouse. As the two stealthily chase each other, Tom’s hand holds and guides the knife while the blade rests in Elizabeth’s closed mouth. If one was to suddenly move, misread the movements of the other, or let go, it could result in disaster. For these two characters, in more ways than one, danger, even death, is never far away.

It is largely due to the performances of Shanahan and Whalley, under the direction of Justin Martin, that this play works so well. The production certainly demands physicality from its performers, and both make the movements of Tom Hodgson’s choreography look natural. The scenes involving the knife are also managed with terrific skill. Having the audience seated within such close proximity and on both sides of the performance space also means that every movement and look of these performers is in full view. Their embodiment of their characters under such scrutiny demonstrates great maturity.

Skin Tight doesn’t tell a particularly unique story but through some unusual methods it certainly takes on a refreshing form. Its depiction of relationships, be they with the land, a child, or a lover, captures just how precarious our purchase on these are, as well as the pain that comes with the inevitable; that there will come a time when one must let go.

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