The Wasp by acclaimed playwright Morgan Lloyd Malcolm is having an ubiquitous moment in theatres across Sydney, and it’s not hard to see why. This latest production by Crying Chair Theatre cements it as one of the most compelling contemporary dramas. Two women, both scarred by violence in their childhood, meet up again 20 years later, seemingly to confront the past and bury the hatchet…but there’s more complexity to this tragic story.
The script gives equal weighting to two dominant female characters. Heather (Mel Day) was the mousy girl with pigtails who is now married to a guy called Simon and seems to be ‘doing alright for herself’, while Carla (Emma Dalton) is the bogan chick from Hicksville who was part of the gang that relentlessly bullied Heather; she’s now living the quasi-happily-married domestic life with four kids and a fifth child on the way. But while Carla finds getting pregnant a breeze, Heather reveals she is struggling with fertility. It’s the first sting in a long list of grievances.
The shifting power balance between these two characters makes it very dynamic to watch. Carla initially comes off as the stronger one; she isn’t the bully she used to be, but she’s tough and can rationalise the violence for what it is (“I get it” / “it happened to everyone else”). In short, she’s moved on, emotionally and psychologically. But Heather’s grudge is not so easy to lift; she’s pained by the ache of not being able to conceive a child. She feels something inside her is “blocked”, graphically describing the pivotal moment of sexual assault perpetrated by Carla’s gang. It’s about as comfortable as listening to nails on a chalkboard.
But just when you are convinced where your sympathy should lie, the dynamic flips again. The character arc is impressive; Heather reveals a cold, calculating side that is beyond feeling rational and forgiving, while Carla is reduced from her tough-talking stance to tearful bargaining (“You want my child? You can have it!”). Heather’s desire to make Carla suffer with the inconceivable threat of fetal abduction makes this story of schadenfreude excruciatingly intense.
Director Richard Cotter facilitates a crisp, chilling delivery from his wonderful actors that plays out like a pulp fiction classic. The set design and props are minimalist and sparse, giving space to delve into the disturbed mental state of each protagonist. When Heather reveals an insect display on the wall of her living room that includes a giant wasp, it sub-textually suggests the act of dismemberment, like the fine handiwork of a cold blooded killer. The sheer creepiness of it all is accentuated by the haunting sound design by Michael Schell which lingers during the interval.
Overall, the creative team makes this 2.5 hander (counting Carla’s unborn child) an edge-on-your seat thriller that leaves the audience gasping at the final moment.
The Wasp by Crying Chair Theatre is playing at Flight Path in Marrickville till 1 April. For tickets and showtimes go to https://cryingchairtheatre.com.au/the-wasp
Images: Eloise Martin Jones