Caress/Ache, by Suzie Miller | Directed by Anthony Skuse

Griffin Theatre Company | Supported and developed by the National Theatre Studio, London | The Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 11 April

On the train to Kings Cross I worked out it’s been 30 years since I worked at The Stables Theatre. A lifetime ago. So it was with a mixture of excitement and trepidation that I once again crossed William Street under the iconic Coke sign in the red-tinged twilight.

I eventually found the theatre (yes, it’s been THAT long) and entered its unrecognisably chic foyer. It was also far smaller than I’d expected, but that wasn’t only due to the skewed perception of time. A partition has been built to block off the loos and the door to the alleyway.

Ah, that alleyway. I remember sitting downstairs during performances, drinking box wine, eating carrot cake and listening to junkies and prostitutes doing their deeds just on the other side of that door. Eye-opening stuff for a sheltered 19-year-old who’d never ventured to seedy Kings Cross before.

As curtain approached, we crammed our way back inside with the throng. Luckily my theatre companion for the evening has kelpie blood in her. She nimbly backed the tightly packed patrons to secure seats for us in the aisle.

When I finally made it up the stairs it was as though I had stepped back in time. Here was the Stables as I remembered it: unchanged, unpretentious and uncomfortable. They even still allow people to sit in the aisles, which was de rigueur in the 1980s but is unheard of in the OHS-infused 2010s.

And then unfolds before us a multi-faceted poem; an ode to touch.

But instead of just using words, it uses actors, projection screens, choral work, recorded music and lighting. Its stanzas are snippets of disparate stories …

The doctor (Ian Stenlake) who touches life in the form of an infant’s beating heart, only to feel that life slip through his fingers.

The woman (Helen Christinson) whose world is shattered after discovering her husband (Gary Clementson) has felt the adulterous touch of another.

The young mother (Sabryna Te’o) who uses words to touch callers on a phone sex line.

The mother (Zoe Carides) who is not allowed to touch her son on foreign soil before he faces his execution.

Yes, Caress/Ache is heavy going. It’s hard work during the opening scenes to wring time and place and theme from the doctor’s poetic monologue and the clinical projected words behind him. But it’s worth it. So very worth it.

Thanks to the Stables’ layout I could watch the audience opposite me. At times they were mesmerised, hardly moving, their eyes riveted on the actors. And what a fine ensemble it is. They wring every emotion, every nuance, every moment from Suzie Miller’s fine script.

The idea of exploring touch came from the lead up to the 2005 execution of young Australian Nguyen Tuong Van in Singapore following a conviction for drug trafficking. The Singaporean Government asserted its rule that the prisoner could not share a hug with his mother. According to the program, this led Miller on an exploration of the power of this basic human sensory system. Powerful indeed.

I have no doubt this will become an Important New Australian Play. It has huge potential to be integrated into the senior school curriculum, so rich is it in metaphor, stagecraft, literary depth, social issues and timeless human emotion.

As a theatre practitioner in a past life, I am filled with admiration for the technical team. Director Anthony Skuse was as much logistics manager as creative artist. He worked with Sophie Fletcher (designer), Matthew Marshall (lighting designer), Nate Edmondson (composer/sound designer) and the actors themselves to almost flawlessly pull off complex choreography of so many theatrical elements. Even just to successfully manage the multitude of props must have required many hours of design and rehearsal. Fresh oysters and lemon, bodily organs, a treadmill — even a bath with running water. Amazingly, there was only one misstep (a loud bang off-stage that must have been one of the larger props being dropped) on opening night.

Unfortunately, this particular theatre space is unforgiving of dramatic moments that are drawn out just a little too long. The lack of interval, the heat and the cramped bleachers proved too intrusive at times when the actors were perhaps a little too lost in a lengthy pause. A suddenly restless audience let them know it was time to move on.

After clapping up a storm for a well-deserved three-bow ovation, my companion and I partook of wine and nibblies in the buzzing foyer. It seemed so familiar and yet I felt distanced from the opening night clique. A distance of about 30 years. It was time to go home.