RSAT-Caroline-Lee-and-Sunanda-Sachatrakul-in-Shhhh-photo-by-Jodie-HutchinsonClare Barron’s newest play Shhhh works like a potion. Her long-awaited follow up to the Pulitzer-prize nominated Dance Nation is a spell-binding experience; a two-hour collage of ASMR monologues, fur-lined toilet seats and poorly attended seances that come together with a near-magical potency. It’s ‘a little bit of a spell’ by Barron’s own admission, and Red Stitch Theatre’s staging casts you in its thrall perfectly.

It’s a near-plotless show, a two-hour collection of semi-related vignettes following various relationships: a mother and daughter, two friends, a first date, a situationship. At its centre are two sisters; Shareen (Jessica Clarke) and Sally (credited as ‘Witchy witch’ in the programme, and played by Caroline Lee).

Shareen is the perpetually ill playwright working in TV and unable to shake a particularly toxic ex, Kyle (Peter Paltos). Sally is the ‘bearer of junk’: a postal-worker who dabbles in witchcraft and electrical kinks.

Barron’s work has always had bodies on the mind, whether dancing through dystopias in Dance Nation (which Red Stitch Theatre staged back in 2019) or tackling parental illness in You Got Older. By her own admittance, theatre is the perfect opportunity to ‘keep playing with the body in public’, and each scene of Shhhh shows her exploring evermore playful means to do so.

There’s the spittle of an intimate A.S.M.R monologue, a cauldron filled with blood from a Dixie Cup, or a situationship ended with an empowering episode of hard spanking. It’s all the ‘fleshy, awkward, confusing’ absurdities of having a body that furnish Barron’s sharply feminist interrogation of consent, sexual abuse, and the erotic.

Barron is led by character first and foremost. Each monologue, anecdote or conflict is dense with detail; each scene alive with the shared histories and language of the relationships at its centre. The critique it offers on rape culture, patriarchal ideas of the erotic and then the magic it finds in female friendships and sisterly love consequently thrums with emotional honesty and a quietly devastating power.

It’s the perfect script for an actor’s ensemble like Red Stitch to sink their teeth into and the cast assembled here rise to the challenge beautifully. Lee is a stand out as the mystical Sally, moving expertly between the comedic and dramatic with a subtle flourish of her hands or a well-placed eyebrow raise.

Clarke revels in each punchline as the tragi-comic Shareen, while also managing to deliver one of the play’s most affecting scenes during a phone call with her mother. Paltos walks a fine line between douche and himbo as the walking red-flag, Kyle. While comedian, Sunanda Sachatrakul is perfectly endearing as love interest Preeya and Hayley Edwards brings a barely-contained anger to an indictment of seedy men as the soda-slurping Francis.

Costumes and set by Romanie Harper are as rich with detail as Barron’s script. A pair of friends eat pizza in taekwondo outfits, while a date sports a shimmering astronaut costume. The set is a hyper pop slumber party of crumpled duvets, pink chiffon and bright faux-furs arranged in well-organised chaos.

It’s Greta Gerwig’s Barbie meets The Craft; the pastel colour scheme broken up by various witchy totems: rock salt lamps, empty Grecian plinths, electric candles and a patch of dark earth (perfect for poorly attended seances!). Harper has made the most of the small confines of Red Stitch’s black box venue.

It’s at once homely yet surreal; intimate yet crowded. It, like Barron’s script, feels alive with an attention to detail and symbolic resonance that offers something new to behold at every turn.

For all its surreal flourishes and tongue-in-cheek dialogue, Barron’s writing has a quietly devastating emotional power. These are characters lobbing lavender seeds at the wall in ritualistic spectacle, yes, but they’re also sisters saying goodbye to each other the only way they know how to.

Barron never loses sight of the emotional reality that spurs her absurd stylistic anachronisms, and director Emma Valente ensures we never do either. Known for her work with feminist theatre company THE RABBLE, Valente pulls her actor’s back from the temptation to overdramatise monologues, or exaggerate comedic beats.

Meanwhile, her sound design – an eclectic mix of alien-like EDM and clock chimes – is playful, at times moving from left ear to right to create the perfect otherworldly sound scape.

Shhhh is a slow-paced show, and this production could stand to quicken some scene transitions or monologue deliveries so that its similarly slow climax doesn’t come across as repetitive. Some background acting also seems unhelpfully stagnant. But Red Stitch Theatre has a glorious hit on its hands with this show, one that bubbles and boils with near-magical intensity. If it works like a potion, then well, bottoms up!

Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel Street, St Kilda East
Performance: Friday 23 June 2023
Season continues to 16 July 2023
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Image: Caroline Lee and Sunanda Sachatrakul in Shhhh – photo by Jodie Hutchinson

Review: Guy Webster