Nikki Shiels’ hilarious performance (as Zoey) which drives this production

— REVIEW of ‘The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe” | Daily Review

The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’ | Review

Ben Neutze | Daily Review
27 Jan, 2015


Zoey Dawson’s meta-theatrical satire The Unspoken Word is ‘Joe’ has already had a few critically-acclaimed seasons around Australia since it premiered in 2012, but still feels fresh, sliding effortlessly into Griffin’s independent season. The audience has come to see a reading of a new play by Zoey Dawson (the real-life playwright, played by Nikki Shiels), one of our “most emerging” playwrights, about a recent, torturous break up. The reading is taking place in Griffin’s intimate SBW Stables Theatre, on the set (rendered with fine detail by Eugyeene Teh) of Griffin’s recently-closed revival of Hannie Rayson’s Hotel Sorrento (Australia’s answer to Angels in America?).

Soon enough, the play is revealed to be a few (too many) drafts away from audience-readiness. As it stands, Zoey is clearly too close to the subject so that the script is full of overly-sentimental cliches and thinly drawn characters. When it becomes clear that Zoey has offstage relationships with some of the actors reading the play — which are far more interesting than the relationships she’s written — things quickly fall apart, and Zoey’s mental state becomes less and less stable.

If that’s a little bit confusing, it’s because the play is about as meta as meta comes — it’s a play within a play-reading. Or a play-reading within a play. Dawson’s writing is full of wit, and it constantly, deliberately throws its audience off-balance. But there’s a clear emotional through-line and a relentless consistency to the action.

Director Declan Greene plays with the audience’s perceptions and the various layers of performance with exceptional skill and attention to detail. I’m not sure if it was a directorial decision (or if it was even intentional), but before the show, Griffin’s artistic director Lee Lewis told the audience the performance would run for about an hour, which is about as long as the ‘reading’ runs. The full performance runs for around about 80 minutes, extending beyond the world of the reading.

Greene directs the action so that it plays entirely by its own rules, and constantly breaks the fourth wall (although, is it really broken when the audience is treated as a distinct character in the play?). Greene’s direction falls somewhere between stark realism and a surreal dream — he casts the audience as a witness to Zoey’s self-destruction, rather than playing directly to them.

My one criticism is that too much of the humour comes from an intimate knowledge of Australian theatre. The publicity material says the play is “a portrait of a woman desperate for the approval of her peers”, and there’s something ironic about the way the play itself gets its biggest laughs from in-jokes about, say, Hotel Sorrento. I’m not saying they were put in just to win the approval of Dawson’s peers, but there’s a knowing wink behind the style of humour. If  you’re “in the know” it will resonate loudly. If not — then it’s another layer of looped meaning.

But the performers break through that layer of obscurity with performances which are, by turns, broadly funny and subtly, surprisingly realistic — there are reports from earlier seasons of a few audience members (even senior figures in the arts world) being fooled into thinking they were actually at a reading during the plays opening moments.

Natasha Herbert is our guide to Zoey’s play, directing the reading, reading the stage directions and pulling the performances together. She plays the straight woman perfectly, desperately trying to keep the reading running as smoothly as possible as it descends into chaos around her. Aaron Orzech is excellent as the actor not entirely happy with his role as “man one” and Matt Hickey finds the awkward charm in his role as the relative newcomer, trying to find his feet in the world of theatre. Annie Last runs with her assigned role as the stereotypical ‘crazy girl’, before finding darker notes in her relationship with Zoey.

But it’s Nikki Shiels’ hilarious performance as Zoey which drives this production. She captures the desperation of this character and the precarious position which artists necessarily put themselves in when they open their hearts in the name of art.

“it’s Nikki Shiels’ hilarious performance (as Zoey) which drives this production”