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February 10, 2014

When I started this blog in 2012, the first production I reviewed was Belvoir’s production of Rita Kalnejais’ Babyteeth. At the time, I was wary of spoiling the production, was unsure how to write a review as such (even though I’d read countless others in the papers), and it was very much a half-baked piece of writing. And it’s always struck me as the one piece on this blog that I’d most like to change, would most like to rewrite if I had the chance. So, two years later, here I am. 






There’s something magical about Belvoir Street Theatre’s corner stage, a rough magic, a homeliness, where the audience and actors play to each other, where the energy is never lost in the gaping chasm between the proscenium arch and auditorium, where everything is highly focused, cornered even; where you feel like something special is happening. In my brief time as a member of Sydney’s theatre audiences, there have been many memorable moments in the Surry Hills theatre – the fragmented and fractured speech rhythms, disjointed and spliced upon itself to create haunting word pictures in Love Me Tender; the pain and cynicism lurking just underneath the warmth, familiarity and awkward humour of the family’s struggles in Gwen In PurgatoryNeighbourhood Watch’s “glorious comedy about hope, death and pets,” as well as Stefan Gregory’s live piano accompaniment (and occasional diversions as an actor); Eamon Flack’s effervescent, ebullient and gloriously alive As You Like It, complete with the pool of water, the flower cannon-bursts, Charlie Garber’s Elizabethan comic tour de force, Casey Donovan disguised as a lion, Gareth Davies in a billowing red dress, and Those Sheep.

Enter, then, Babyteeth, a new play by Rita Kalnejais, directed by Flack, and billed as “a mad, gorgeous, bittersweet comedy about how good it is not to be dead yet.” Filled with a warmth and a hum, Babyteeth – with its figs, eight-year-old violin prodigy, morphine, clear skies and Latvian immigrants (amongst many other unreckonable forces) – spins its story together out of the tough spidersilk strands of a fourteen year old’s (failing) health in a magnificently bittersweet concoction buzzing with ‘the violent sweetness of life.’


I love a clever set, revolving stages especially, and even better when they are used creatively and beautifully, and Babyteeth did not disappoint. At the end of the first act, Milla and Moses ran through Robert Cousins’ three-roomed set of Milla’s house laughing, bathed in Niklas Pajanti’s golden light; the revolve spun and David Byrne’s ‘Tiny Apocalypse’ played, and it was one of those beautiful moments of stage magic that make you grin from ear to ear. (In a moment of divine clarity, it is now the song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be.)


In 25 Belvoir Street, Rita Kalnejais talks about the grace of the Belvoir space, and its presence as a theatrical institution. “You’re revealed,” she says. “You have no choice but to surrender. And when you do, it’s like falling from a great and beautiful height. So easy. When you step onto that stage you’ve already thrown your heart. It is leaping to meet it that you arrive at Grace. … It’s hard to define in words, but you know when it’s present. It registers in goose-bumps, in laughter, tears of joy, a shudder of grief, a sigh of deep and sudden insight, in silence. Grace becomes most visible in the face of disaster. When everything’s going to shit, grace presses out like red leaf patterns from the chaos. … Grace is what catches you when you’ve lost control and you’re free-falling. … At the moment of grace our hearts are exquisite, raw and open and we are guided by them. … When I sit in a dark theatre and someone on stage reveals the truth of their heart to me and I feel my own beat in response – I feel grace. … It’s the miracle of humans being revealed together.” Belvoir, she concludes, is the very hub of grace, and Babyteeth was written out of it, for it, from it, because of it. And it shows. To me, the play fits wonderfully within the aesthetic established by Neil Armfield – their ‘house style’ (to quote Alan John) – of intense, raw, often anarchic, personal stories that connect to a larger picture as well as working on a more intimate level. Even though you know how it’s going to end from the first scene (even the promotional material doesn’t hide anything), the way it ends up there is disarmingly real, so full of the unfathomable quirks and friendships we find our lives made of, so full of Life. There’s something quite beautiful about it too, about the whole thing – from the script and cast, to the set and space and the plot, the way they all deal with it.

Much has been made about Milla’s attraction to Moses (Eamon Farren), and whether it is love or not, whether it is real or not, whether whether whether whether whether… In many ways it doesn’t matter. Milla (Sara West) is fourteen, she knows she’s dying, her parents (Helen Buday and Greg Stone) know it too, yet out of all of them, Milla is the one most willing to face it, most willing to laugh in its face and dare it to hit her. Her relationship with Moses is initially borne out of convenience – simply, he was there when she needed someone most (he helped her with a nosebleed on the station) – yet it soon moves far beyond that. I don’t think it is ‘real’ love, or at least not ‘true love’, but rather a desperate life-confirming need for sexual interaction, for needing reminding that you can still feel, that you are indeed still alive. And while they do grow to like each other across the span of the play’s months, I don’t think it is ever really anything like ‘true love’ or the love that her parents have for her, for each other, one that has been nurtured and cultivated over many years. In a way, it is their neighbour, Toby (Kathryn Beck), who becomes the surrogate daughter for Henry and Anna. By being there, and by being lively and alive, she becomes a natural kind of stand-in for Henry’s fatherly actions to be projected towards in the pending absence of his daughter. Which is not to say that Toby ever replaces Milla when she’s alive (or not), but that she exists as a similar figure in both the narrative as well as the world of the characters.

There’s a desperation to the characters, Milla’s parents especially – even in Gidon the violin teacher (Russell Dykstra) – as we see them try and grapple with the enormity of the ever-present reality of Milla’s sickness (and eventual death). There’s a desperate need, a bumbling fumblingness, to Henry and Anna’s scenes in his consulting rooms, a gentle teasing to their familial interactions in the kitchen, to their conversations with Moses and Milla, to the way they, all of them, try to reach out to each other and hold on, only to have them slip through their fingers. As much as Babyteeth is about Life, it is also about Death and passing, about the cyclical nature of things, the turning turning turning of the years and seasons and days and months and minutes, the unstoppable march of time and its effects on each and every one of us.

The final scene in Gidon’s apartment, is extraordinary in its normalcy. Anna sits at the piano against the wall; beside her, eight-year old Thuong with his violin, and Gidon with his. “Anna places her hands on the piano. She takes a deep breath. [And] they play and play and play.” While we mightn’t believe that Helen Buday is ‘actually’ playing the piano, the scene is still characteristic of Kalnejais’ style and idea that out of death comes life, phoenix-like. We carry on, even when we don’t think we can, and we pull each other up and continue on together. Eamon Flack’s Director’s Notes in the program beautifully sum up Kalnejais’ play, as well as providing a glimpse into the giddy word-drunk wonder that is her script:

At the heart of Babyteeth is an extraordinarily curious, open and
generous way of seeing. It is a reminder that, even in the crammed
rooms of the everyday – with all its requirements to drink water,
take care of your knees, open and close doors, keep your marriage,
sometimes lose a loved one – there are still other dimensions for further living.

Babyteeth, like life, and in spite of death, is (probably) a comedy.

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