Gold Coast‘s slick and assured production design is unfortunately not enough to mask – or compensate for – confused, excessively metaphoric and misfired writing decisions at Theatre503.
Louise Gooding’s Gold Coast sets out to explore the psychological trauma of war. How its enduring effects can span generations, unravel relationships and even begin to permeate the minds of those closest to you. Back from Iraq, Joe carries the burden of a secret that (unless I’m very ignorant) Gooding leaves undefined. Initially sympathetic of this central character’s PTSD-like symptoms, Roz isn’t ‘let in’ to her husband’s inner-demons either. So with the burning responsibility of a baby daughter to raise (who the audience will also meet, 13 years into the future), she drifts away. 10,000 miles away, eventually – to the eponymous city in Queensland, Oz.
So far, so good. The production design offers a lot of promise too: set, costume and lighting choices are assured, slick and – whilst not radical (the environment’s as barren, colourless and inhospitable as you’d expect for any play exploring trauma and/or internal ‘isolation’) – make sense. Will Alder’s sound design impresses, constantly contributing to atmosphere without ever overbearing – and punctuating lighting transitions adeptly.
My problem relates, almost exclusively, to the writing. And that’s really not something I say often. But countless unnecessary subplots distract and, quite simply, baffle. Child grooming temporarily seems to become a subsidiary theme. You wonder if that’s really a necessary writing decision, when the primary theme you’re tackling is already so dramatically rich. A couple of minutes later (or maybe before…my sense of time started to meander as much as the play’s chronology after two hours), a hippie alt-psychotherapist is frantically masturbating the central character. She never returns, and the event’s significance is never clarified or even mentioned. Odd writing decisions like this almost remind you of Wiseau’s The Room, but unfortunately just without the humour or self-aware campness…
Dialogue rarely feels credible; everything’s just fragmented and overly stilted to quite a punishing degree. And Gooding’s decision to indefinitely withhold information relating to the central character’s ‘secret’ from the audience (despite scene-after-scene of wives, military doctors and aforementioned hippie alt-psychotherapists screeching ‘WHAT HAPPENED!?’) is an odd one too. Without a strong prior emotional attachment to the character (which the opening scene singularly attempts to establish, but isn’t long or interesting enough), the audience just stop caring after a while about whatever demons he’s supposedly suppressing. After one too many scenes that lead to nowhere other than Joe shaking and looking ever ‘pained’, it all just gets a little tedious.
The cast do the best they can with the material. Other than accent switching though, the text unfortunately just doesn’t really allow for anyone to stand out or leave a lasting impression. Scenes, particularly in act 1, are often so short that we seem to spend more time watching the cast scuttling on and off stage in the semi-dark (sometimes having to basically stand around and wait whilst the person they are playing against is off-stage somewhat needlessly swapping costumes to become an alternate character). A dodgy directorial decision to forsake the possibility of any momentum being sustained – by insisting on constant costume changes and even characters exiting, and re-entering the stage seconds later.
Writing and directorial decisions also, unfortunately, feel antiquatedly white, middle-classed and heteronormative for the 2018 fringe scene – and particularly for Theatre 503’s contemporary programming. Stumbling across the suicide attempt of the partner you’ve just walked out on because you ‘forgot your daughter’s pink bunny’ is just a bit too twee for my taste, and Joe later spilling his ‘inner thoughts’ to said bunny isn’t much better. Without giving too much away, the play’s concluding line (delivered by the two women in unison, to the ‘man’ of their broken family) also seems remarkably anti-feminist considering both the play’s events and the wider socio-political landscape of 2018. Is it really right to position the man (and the only one to directly experience the actual trauma of war that the play is supposedly exploring) STILL to be the sole necessary saviour of women’s livelihoods? Gold Coast seems to – and I’m just not convinced.
Above all perhaps, both Gooding and director Eloise Lally seem preoccupied with metaphor. Nothing wrong with that per se – it’s just that they don’t make quite as much sense as they probably want them to, and their fixation on them clouds the evening perhaps more than anything else. Menacing military doctors, who we meet during Joe’s flashback, suddenly jump under a table and begin to simulate sex. An overblown allegory for the ‘Special Relationship’, one may be able to assume – but I question how many audience members would take much away from that (plus what relevance it has to anything else).
Gold Coast‘s overarching (intended) metaphor involves water: half-filled glasses are gradually drained and downed upstage (although this motif, whilst duly established, seems to have been forgotten about by scene 4). The significance of this water theme is tricky to decode – I’d assume the vodka bottle placed behind the glasses during the second act may be relevant? A substance – whilst invisible in its transparency – which can ‘poison’ water in the same way that war can mar an uncorrupted mind. But that really is clutching at straws…and even articulating it out loud begins to feel quite pretentious. Joe’s manic father is just one of many characters to drill a statistic into the audience: that 65% of our bodies are composed of water. Maybe (if we’re insisting on everything having an analogy), you could say that about the writing too. Everything’s just quite watery. Thin and insipid and actually quite bland in its desire to cover off so many themes.