Love can take many forms. It can be messy, indulgent and tender. It can be hard-earned, desperate and manipulative.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production of Patricia Cornelius’ 2004 play Love lays bare the bones of this multifaceted inner human quality in a stripped-back take on a toxic love triangle that threatens to tear apart the connective tissue that ties its three damaged characters together.
The love between Annie (Rose Riley) and Tanya (Anna Samson) is co-dependent, occasionally bristly, unsentimental but, at other times, sorely affectionate.
When the gruff, tough Tanya first lays eyes on Annie, she wants to have and protect her. Annie, meanwhile, rounds off Tanya’s rough edges. Young and abused, she longs for her touch and nestles comfortably under Tanya’s fiercely protective wing.
But it’s no ordinary relationship. Their love is blighted by a commercial transaction. Annie is a sex worker and Tanya is her pimp. Their connection an unconventional, unbalanced one at the bottom of the social system, where drugs and prison time is the norm, and where hopes are expressed but rarely realised.
Cornelius’ writing (Savages, SHIT, Who’s Afraid of the Working Class) is renowned for tapping into characters society deems as trash and unworthy and here, she uses her non-judgemental lens in vignettes that snap in and out of Annie and Tanya’s lives.
The dialogue works on the level of dirty poetic lyricism and is heavily overt about the elastic nature of love – so much that it threads the word “love” multiple times to hammer its point; a reinforcement of the way it can build, foster and destroy self and others.
No matter how many times it’s repeated, the narrative doesn’t feel as wholly spelled out. Like peering through a keyhole, Love’s dotting structure offers only fragmentary bits of these characters’ lives. The grimy context surrounding the protagonists is obscured from view and the short glimpses into Annie and Tanya’s relationship are too brief to allow us to settle into the rhythm of their bond before it’s complicated by the arrival of Lorenzo (Hoa Xuande), who takes advantage of Tanya’s short stint in prison, and Annie’s despair for company.
Does Lorenzo really love Annie, or is it the proceeds that come of her prostitution? Director Rachel Chant’s earnest, well-meaning direction finds its sweet spot in the scenes where it’s a two-hander between Annie and Tanya, but lacks the punch to give proper weight to this question.
The dynamic shifts when the relationship becomes polyamorous, but the effect is as convoluted as it is simplistic: Lorenzo’s abusive tactics are one-dimensional, and feed straight into the estrangement between the two women – where Tanya’s jealousy is fuelled at one end, and Annie’s overwhelming, naive desire to divide her love is fostered at the other.
Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s production lets the play speak for itself, and is more cautious than ferocious in its energy. The production design (Ella Butler), bordered by neon lights (Sian James-Holland), is functional with few set pieces. An electronic score/sound design (Nate Edmondson) smoothly marks scene transitions.
Riley and Samson give committed performances: the former wide-eyed, frantically desperate to be loved; the latter intensely wanting to give it. Xuande’s take on Lorenzo is appropriately unpleasant, although doesn’t quite convince when this highly conniving character manages to have Annie eating out of his hand.
Love drains these characters, but it also provides the essence for their survival.
“I’m beautiful,” says Annie at one point, as she glances out into the distance alone, a warm light spotlighting her in the middle of the stage. It’s in these reflective moments – where Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s staging and Cornelius lets her characters breathe, where time stands still – that the play is at its strongest.
For an instant, Annie can imagine it – even believe in it – and love, in all its chaotic manifestations, sustains her.