Stay Woke

The term “woke” – in the sense of being politically and socially aware, cognisant of structural inequality and racial privilege – has become a victim of its own success, in some ways.

It has a long history in African-American culture and was associated with the Black Lives Matter movement, until it became ubiquitous and was commandeered (you guessed it) by white people to represent every new ideological edict coming out of leftist political discourse. No wonder it became a pejorative term so quickly. Now if someone tells you to stay woke, your first reaction is likely to be a desire to throw a fridge at them.

In Aran Thangaratnam’s debut play for Malthouse Theatre, Stay Woke, nobody throws a fridge, but a cup gets smashed, people bicker and judge each other, and one person goes down after one too many Xanax.

It is the kind of hothouse play – four characters stuck in a single setting, tearing pieces off each other for sport – that Edward Albee turned into a searing, emotionally wrought masterpiece with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Thangaratnam has a long way to go before he can claim that level of mastery; at this point, he seems more like a two-bit David Williamson knock-off.

One of the overarching problems with this play, beyond the thinness of the conceit, is that none of the four people even remotely act like real human beings; every line of dialogue feels forced and unnatural, every character reaction an echo of the playwright’s contrivances. In this poor simulacrum of familial tension and sibling rivalry, the actors don’t stand a chance.

Niv (Dushan Philips) and his mixed-race non-binary partner Mae (Brooke Lee) have hired a cabin on Mount Bulla, inviting Niv’s brother Sai (Kaivu Suvarna) and his girlfriend Kate (Rose Adams) along for the weekend. Niv and Mae are a pair of cultural warriors, vegan, constantly on guard for slippages and faux pas.

Sai, and especially Kate, are desperate to make a good impression, anxious about their political credentials and keen to avoid any topics that might cause friction. Cue hilarity!

Only, almost nothing about Stay Woke is remotely funny or sharp. The predictable catfight that ensues is woefully free of wit or insight, and if it hits multiple cultural markers, it does so in such a scattergun way it feels like Thangaratnam is merely racking up references to seem current. If anything, it has the opposite effect: the play is strangely old-fashioned, like something from the sitcom-heavy mid-90s.

A lot of mileage is made of Kate’s supposed transgressions – these mainly revolve around misgendering Mae, and include lazy racial assumptions about the boys – but she is too innocuous and blandly affable a character to support the ideological role she’s assigned here.

Niv is monstrous, insufferably condescending and patrician, but he too lacks the moral weight to convince as Kate’s nemesis. The battle between these two makes up the sturm und drang of the play’s second half, and results in lots of yelling, but it’s a halfhearted fight and coyly resolved.

Worse is what the play ignores. Niv and Sai are Sri Lankan-Australians, and there is some (fairly tokenistic) discussion on recent Tamil history and the pressures on migrant communities, but the key piece of information the playwright gives us – that the boys come from massive wealth, having been raised in a mansion in Toorak – is so underdeveloped it has no impact.

Class structures are power structures too, the trump cards in the debate on identity politics, but Thangaratnam completely ignores the repercussions of this detail, content to take pot shots at easier targets.

Director Bridget Balodis does an admirable job with what little she has. She plays the piece at a rollicking pace, allowing the tension to build gradually. And she has fun with the late night shenanigans that tilt into disaster.

The actors don’t fare as well, especially the usually excellent Philips, who lets his voice sit in this oddly breathy high register that grates almost as much as the character’s belligerence and stupidity. Adams is saddled with an unplayable ditz of a character, and can do little with a cringingly awful professional dilemma late in the play.

Survana and Lee are better only because their characters are gentler types, leaning towards naturalism, and the actors have less to do to make them seem credible. Sai is relatively rational and endearing, and Mae is a breath of fresh air – although they are often reduced, by the other characters and the playwright himself, to an issue of pronouns rather than a multi-layered person in their own right.

A lot of resources have gone into the development and production of this play (Matilda Woodroofe’s terrific set and Rachel Lee’s complimentary lighting look fantastic in the Beckett) but some fundamentals of playwriting have been ignored or lost along the way.

The internal structures of Stay Woke are flimsy, the central rivalries unconvincing, and the satirical edge blunted by confused messaging. Thangaratnam might still emerge as a talented new voice in Melbourne theatre, but not on the evidence of this stodgy weekend.

Stay Woke
Beckett Theatre – Malthouse Theatre, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Performance: Wednesday 2 March 2022
Season continues to 13 March 2022
Information and Bookings:

Image: Rose Adams, Kaivu Suvarna, Dushan Philips and Brooke Lee in Stay Woke – photo by Phoebe Powell

Review: Tim Byrne