[THEATRE REVIEW] STAY WOKE Review – The Malthouse Theatre

I have always been a firm believer in the fact that you should walk away from a comedy having learnt as much as you would when leaving a drama. I guess that is the reason why I enjoyed playwright Aran Thangaratnam’s debut play Stay Woke so much last night.

See as both Thangaratnam and director Bridget Balodis said in their speeches last night at the heart of Stay Woke is a comedy, but I would also argue that this is a piece of theatre that is going to pack a punch for its dramatic moments just as much as will make you laugh when it is at its funniest.

The play explores what happens when two couples travel to Mt. Buller for a weekend away in a ski chalet. But these aren’t just any two couples – the first are Niv (Dushan Phillips) and Mai (Brooke Lee). They are as ‘woke’ as you get. Niv is a  vegan who is ready to pounce on anyone that he believes is politically correct, while Mai is non-binary, works for a company that educates big business on being more PC, and they are more than happy to share intimate stories such as how they met Niv in an orgy tent at the Burning Man festival.

Then there is the other couple made of Sai (Kaivu Suvarna) and Jessica (Rose Adams). Sai is the estranged brother of Niv, neither brother has ever forgiven the other for past wrongs while Jessica is an Aussie from a country Victorian town and while she tries hard finds herself constantly stuffing up in front of Niv and Mai.

I could see why somebody going to see Stay Woke may feel that this is going to be a 100 minute ‘preaching’ session of what they have done that is politically incorrect in their life. But to the credit of Thangaratnam’s script this is anything but that.

If anything the play is the opposite. Yes it points out that the things Jessica does and says at times is wrong but it also explores the possibility that some people maybe ‘too woke.’ Some of the attacks on Jessica early on from Niv are unnecessarily savage to the point where anyone in the audience can see Niv as the villain in the piece. But such are the skills of Thangaratnam’s writing that at the same time the audience can’t help but feel a compassion for all the characters on the stage. Don’t get me wrong you will quickly find yourself taking sides with the couples but at the same time you do feel attached to all.

In fact as an audience you find yourself drawn into the world of the characters very, very quickly. Everything plays out with an amazing set designed to look like the Chalet (complete with falling snow throughout the performance) and from the moment you sit down in the intimate setting that is the Malthouse you feel like you are in that Chalet… right down to feeling chilly as you look at the snow.

Being drawn in like that meant I felt the intensity that bubbles away throughout the performance. There is a lot of hostility between the characters and you can feel that energy fill the theatre space. There are times when you feel your heart in your mouth as a character delivers a particularly biting or nasty comment and due to the amazing facial expressions of Rose Adams you often feel Jessica’s hurt as your own.

There is a true power in the characters that Thangaratnam has created. The ultra cool Mai quickly becomes a favourite and Brooke Lee does a sensational job bringing them to life on the stage. Kaivu Suvarna also does a great job making the often quiet Sai relatable to the audience while Dushan Phillips often steals the scene as the vicious and aggressive Niv. When he goes toe to toe with someone in an argument Phillips shows that he is a true star of the Melbourne theatre scene.

Stay Woke is perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of theatre that I have seen for a long time. The intensity that Thangaratnam’s writing brings to the theatre is rare and this is one writer that I can’t wait to see more work from. This is a must see for those that like well-written theatre with creative and interesting characters.