It’s a bit of a strange thing to walk into a theatre having been told what the themes of a piece are. Explicitly, immediately, even before the synopsis in the program, it says ‘Wrecking Ball is a conversation about consent, authorship, and putting words in other people’s mouths’. This isn’t just a vague statement of summary, the kind that usually follows a plot description that says ‘this is a play about power’ or ‘relationships’. This is a statement of intent, and a strong one at that.
For such a direct description, Wrecking Ball is quite a gentle play. Action Hero duo Gemma Paintin and James Stenhouse are a pop star and a photographer respectively, the latter photographing the former in anticipation of her latest album. She wants to be Real, or to be perceived as such. The two are not quite characters and not quite caricatures, caught between the general and the specific, being a thematic point and an actual story.
The set is a minimal backdrop for a photo shoot, a handful of props and a small neon sign. The audience are present and the veil between them and the actors is pierced repeatedly, although never fully torn away. Stenhouse and Paintin’s acting is utterly engaging, as it has to be when you return the audience’s awareness to their position as audience with such frequency. There is a truthlessness/revelation conflict at the heart of Wrecking Ball, drawing in again and again to expectancy and lack. Each scene presents at least one image that strikes to the heart of the piece, carrying its symbolism like prop. It’s gorgeously staged, and Stenhouse and Paintin’s dynamic movements and expressions prompt constant awareness of the space and the things within it. It’s also very funny, an off-hand wit that’s utterly necessary to keep the tension of the situation from souring. The lines between authenticity, creativity and commercialism are shown to be arbitrary yet again.
Ultimately though, there is nothing revelatory about the production. Not that a revelation, or even a strong statement, is a requirement of art, but it is perhaps expected when the themes are so heavily foregrounded. These themes, the windows in the fourth wall, even the meta moments, are all familiar, even well-trodden, ground. It ended in a quiet defeat (though others may disagree with this reading) that seals Wrecking Ball as a snapshot of the early 2010s, a conversation, a gentle critique, rather than a punchy criticism of the modern world, a statement, a call to action, a call to anything other than thought. Which is, of course, not a bad thing. We could all use a little more thought, a little more conversation.
Wrecking Ball is on at Arts House until 3 June. Tickets are available online and at the box office.