Janice’s friends say that her son Sebastian is ‘strange’.
When Janice’s son Sebastian makes history in the NSW seaside town of Newcastle by committing a series of dizzyingly gruesome murders, the community struggles to abide her continued existence. Just as it is inconceivable to Janice that bodies washed up on the beach are her son’s victims, it is no less inconceivable to her community that she had no part in it.
Helpless in the aftermath of these charges, Janice’s consciousness is explored through a vivid montage of life since giving birth to Sebastian, which reveals what went on before Sebastian was stamped a ‘monster’.
In fragments, we meet Janice’s neglectful, moronic weather-reporter husband Len, his work colleagues, a few friends and a handful of local traders. Lyn Pierse portrays protagonist Janice throughout. Nathalie Murray and Julia Robertson take on manifold personalities and adopt diverse physicalities to create a full picture of her past.
Notably, Sebastian is alluded to, discussed and tape-recorded, but never characterised. It is desultory interactions with members of the community, revealing treatment of Janice before versus after events, that is critical to Hobart’s comment.
Dialogue is framed tightly, and grounded in humorous social patterns and contracts. At one point, a bashful waitress (Robertson) attempts a retreat to her station after overhearing a sexually-charged conversation escalate between Janice and a close friend while approaching their table to take their order. While Pierce, Murray and Robertson make an energetic and compelling alliance, the scene also succeeds in making a point of Janice’s normal, relatable existence prior to Sebastian’s arrest.
By storytelling this examination of fear, entrapment and cruelty in a way that is exciting, accessible and important, Hobart establishes herself as a first-rate playwright.
Director Warwick Doddrell collaborates with Isabella Andronos (production design), Sophie Pekbilimli (lighting) and Ben Hinchley (sound) to make potent each vignette. Scenes start and end with a jolt in some way: a flash of colour concludes a jarring exchange; a spell of physical theatre evokes the tenor of oncoming dialogue, and shrill noise explosions signal a change in mood or pace.
A visceral dislike of the bombastic Len (depicted marvellously by Robertson) develops over the course over the play. At first, his overdone behaviours and trite expressions are what might be described as ‘harmless’. We take Len’s side when Janice experiences the leering advances of his work colleague (Murray): Len responds to the thorny situation by coolly excusing them both, then exclaiming “that guy’s a cunt!” when the colleague is out of earshot.
However, as Len embodies the wearily familiar archetype of the dad who is angered by the ‘girly’ way his son dances, is disdainful of the psychologist Janice believes he should see and indifferent to any artistic talent Sebastian has, the ‘harmless’ veneer is lifted. Len’s commitment to heteronormative behaviour can make no exception for his son’s reluctance to play cricket or see girls.
In the aftermath of Sebastian’s arrest, Len – incredulously – is made famous for dealing with it all ‘so well’, while Janice is ostracised and abused, even asked to leave the hospital she volunteers at for frightening the patients. Meanwhile, Len uses the notoriety as an opportunity to be pitied, making it widely-known that Janice left him.
Lie With Me starts to feel like a fair trial in the midst of a witch hunt. Janice is looked at askance for birthing a ‘monster’ by the villagers, but it’s the villagers – a breadth of viperous small-town archetypes engrossed in various acts of exclusion and punishment – that Hobart puts under the microscope.
Hobart’s work is a vital addition to our theatre landscape and timely, given, for example, Scott Morrison’s recent remarks about the trans community, which imperil us all by seeding the exact sort of baseless paranoia Lie With Me warns of.