Title and Deed (A Monologue for a Slightly Foreign Man), by Will Eno | Directed by Jada Alberts

Belvoir (http://belvoir.com.au) | Belvoir Downstairs Theatre, Surry Hills, Sydney | Until 6 November

The Guest and I walked into Belvoir Downstairs Theatre clueless, knowing nothing about what we were about to experience. It’s sometimes fun to be hit by a theatrical experience and let it take shape as it progresses, with neither preconceptions nor expectations.

We entered the space to see a man with his back against the wall, in daggy clothes, a worn sack at his feet. He seemed to be in limbo, nowhere, timeless.

Then he began speaking, in earnest, directly to the audience.

“Huh, so it’s a monologue,” I thought. “Oh no,” was my next thought. “A 70-minute monologue? Best strap in for a long haul.”

It was hard to make sense of his utterings, near impossible to get a handle on the location, the time, the context.

At first it seemed as though he felt like a foreigner in his own native land. But it quickly dawned that the script was not so localised. Written by New Yorker Will Eno, this character of The Traveller is Everyman. Every man and woman who has found themselves in places foreign. Lost in a foreign landscape, foreign society, foreign routine … found themselves somehow on the outside looking in, trying to grasp the nuances of ‘somewhere else’ and to fit in as best they can.

Jimi Bani is recognisable from the telemovie Mabo in the title role. As The Traveller he is riveting, his connection with the audience extraordinary. It’s less that he is delivering a monologue than having a conversation with each and every audience member. He is constantly in the moment, ideating every line, every phrase, different emotions constantly contorting his face and changing the cadence of this voice.

Research has suggested that lead actors in an average two-hour play expend the same energy as a brickie’s labourer in an eight-hour day. (Don’t ask for the reference – it was a statistic bandied about at acting school in the 80s and seemed legit!) If that’s so, then Bani surely works overtime. To deliver a 70-minute monologue is a feat in itself, but to do it so convincingly and with such focus and concentration means he really should have taken that third curtain call we offered him.

Having said that, though, it was 70 minutes of heightened concentration for the audience as well. We could not help but get a little restless. The abstract nature of the piece didn’t help, being a little too abstruse. Was The Traveller a refugee? A migrant? Something otherworldly? Were we in fact all in the afterlife? At times the text was so lacking in context that it was easy to drift off.

One man sat playing with his beard. One woman rubbed her partner’s back as he leaned forward to stretch. A woman focussed on fiddling with her necklace. Someone fell fast asleep, despite the coffee they had downed within the first 10 minutes.

But this restlessness was well into the play and Bani brought us all back with his emotionally charged slide towards the end.

Above and below: Jimi Bani in Title and Deed. All images: Brett Boardman.