17 Apr 2015: Skinned Knee Production’s show takes us to some pretty dark, dirty places within the LGBT community, but Gwen Pew appreciates that it dared to go all the way
We’ve been to our fair share of productions that claim they will shock, and be dark, and talk about taboo subjects. Most of them end up being about as gritty as a smooth vanilla ice cream cone on a balmy summer’s day, but Ragnarok follows the talk through with actual action – plenty of it, too – and takes us all the way to the darkest corners of the LGBT community. Presented by Skinned Knee Productions, the play’s ending is somewhat predictable, and the journey there is not a comfortable one, but it does bring something refreshingly different to the local stage.
Upon entering The Substation’s black box theatre, we realised that we had walked straight into Asgard, a tacky gay club that borrowed its name from the home to the Norse gods. The show’s title, likewise, is a reference taken from Norse mythology – Ragnarok is a sort of doomsday that results in the death of the gods and the apocalypse, before two surviving humans repopulate the Earth. And while all the characters are also loosely based on the various deities, the actual series of events that take place is firmly rooted in the seedier side of the real world. The story begins when an aspiring writer, Dan (Tan Shou Chen), falls for the young, beautiful party boy, Alan (Mitchell Fang). Dan’s secret admirer, Lachlan (Bright Ong) – who is waiting for AIDS to drag him to the grave – becomes enraged at their blossoming romance. Violence comes in the form of vicious words, the drugging of drinks, rape and, ultimately, death.
The narrative is interspersed with monologues, as the characters take turns to embody the gods that they represent. While the constant, though sometimes abruptly-executed, parallel with the mythological world feels strange at first, it does become effective in illustrating the fatalistic, larger-than-life tale that unfolds once we get used to it. The production also covers a huge amount of ground, from the sense of rage and helplessness that many HIV/AIDS patients suffer from, to how some parents are unable to come to terms with their children’s – and sometimes even their own – sexuality, and the devastation at the thought that one will never be able to have their own child because of the disease. We do wish that some of these issues could be delved into further, but the work nonetheless delivers the hard-hitting punches that it set out to.
The script by Andrew Sunderland is sharp and witty, and we respect the director, Aole T Miller, for having the guts to never shy away from the more graphic elements of the show (which is rated R18). The cast, too, fully gave themselves to their parts: Ong makes an alluringly sadistic monster, while Fang depicts the very picture of a naïve youngster struggling to make sense of the world. Tan plays out his tragic fate heartbreakingly, and Rosemary McGowan is endearing in her role as Thora, who works with those affected by HIV/AIDS, and friends with Dan and Alan. As everything spirals out of control, a duo of club kids, called the Icicles (Sunderland and Chanel Ariel Chan), delight in adding fuel to the fire with a bunch of bitchy one-liners.
The only problem we really have with the play is the pacing. It currently stands at two hours with no intermission, but certain scenes – such as when Dan lucidly dances with Lachlan after being drugged – could definitely be cut shorter to make the whole thing even punchier. The original songs by Esther Low, who also plays the quiet bargirl Hallie, are nice, but do not add much to the production and drags on at times. It doesn’t help that another real-life bar behind The Substation started rocking out from behind the wall towards the end of the show, and completely overrides the chance of us catching the lyrics properly.
But ultimately, the production has the edge that we were looking for. Yes, it’s sordid, but we don’t feel that it’s sordid just for the sake of it – the script wouldn’t have been brought to life as colourfully if these scenes were taken out – though we will say that we wouldn’t suggest bringing someone to see this on your first date.