We walk into the theatre, seats on four sides surrounding a clear Perspex box. I see a lone forearm in a pool of white foam. Long, black, manicured fingernails rest on top of foam cubes (how often do actors have to get their nails done?), fingers gently curve around a corner. I search for other limbs amongst the disorder.
A small selection of articles about millennials tweeted into my twitter feed since I saw Deluge:— Jane Howard (@noplain)March 23, 2016
This forearm, of course, gives way to a body: people emerge waist up, hips and legs still submerged beneath the cubes. (In theatre there is always so much we cannot see.) Deluge, the debut work from Adelaide independent theatre company Tiny Bricks,
is a series of five plays performed by ten people – lives unfold in bedrooms, at bus shelters, in clubs, over the internet. These young people are talking to their mothers on the phone, exasperated; they’re putting off assignments and putting them off and putting them off and maybe they’ll just drop out; they’re staring at the universe and trying to find their place, trying to find a religion that explains it all; they’re trying to figure out if there is room for another person, for a child, for their child; they’re looking only at screens, playing games forever, because why live your life when the world of games offers so many more possibilities? Some of these young people share space and time, others share only time. (If we talk in delayed chat over the internet are we sharing either?)
Created by a young theatre company spearheaded by young artists, Deluge is a [Thesaurus: documentary] documentary of what it means to be coming into adulthood for the millennial generation. (If you say a word over and over again it starts to sound made-up. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Generation. Generation. Generation. Generation. Generation.)
— Jessica Reed (@GuardianJessica)March 9, 2016
From director Nescha Jelk and playwright Phillip Kavanagh, the five stories double and weave their way around each other. A couple of strands collide—Emily (Eliza Oliver) manages to leave her house but cannot manage to get on the bus, Stephen (James Smith) leaves his camera and his YouTube channel to find people to talk to about religion with in person; meeting at the bus stop, they are both exactly what the other needs—but mostly the stories sit apart. This isn’t one of those plays where worlds coincidentally and neatly [Thesaurus: collide] entwine to become a unified whole. Instead, it’s a play about how every generation is a multiplicity of people; we each carry our own story. (But, of course, in the theatre, lives aren’t separate. They share the same physical space: [Thesaurus: captured] ensnared in a box.)
Four of the stories shared on this stage are fictional; Kavanagh counters these against the fifth, an edited transcript of conversations between Chelsea Manning (Ashton Malcolm) and Adrian Lamo (Alen Woollatt). When the world heard of Manning we heard of the man who released hundreds of classified documents to WikiLeaks. It wasn’t until after conviction that we heard her claim her place as a woman. Malcolm’s Manning is [Thesaurus: neat] ordered and proper; she talks about gender dysphoria but Jelk only presents the woman.
— Nell Frizzell (@NellFrizzell)March 10, 2016
The foil of fiction against non-fiction is done subtly—nothing but a note in the program marks this conversation out from the rest—but when that distinction is grasped, Deluge gains weight. Kavanagh and Jelk neither [Thesaurus: praise] exalt nor denigrate Manning’s story in the face of the remaining nine characters. Instead, her presence acts as a conduit to talk about the complexities of applying any one story to any group of people – as the media so often attempts to do. (If you say a word over and over again it starts to sound made-up. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Millennial. Generation. Generation. Generation. Generation. Generation.)
— Bethanie Blanchard (@beth_blanchard)March 11, 2016
In Deluge even the young man the furthest away from the internet—The Prophet (Antoine Jelk), slightly manic, trapped in his own head—ends up filmed, captured in pixels. (Can the lives of our generation truly be discrete?)
We can no longer write about young people without acknowledging we are always connected. Television writers, finally, seem to have solved this problem: text messages and emails flash up on screen as characters communicate. (It’s a truism that every plot of Seinfeld would fall apart if only they owned mobile phones.) Contemporary plays, however, often struggle to integrate this silent text-based method of communication too, and typically ignore it altogether.
In response, Jelk’s theatrical world is kept decidedly analogue. There are no screens to tell this story of young people, no technology used to mimic or signify communication through text or the constant buzz of notifications. Her actors deliver dialogue created through online chat the same way they deliver dialogue created in bedrooms – connections online are no different to those in person. (After days of messaging back and forth, talking as easily as if we were in the same room, I can pick up my phone and call a friend in London and oceans melt away.)
'I feel like my 20s are going before my eyes. I feel 50, not 28.’ Sarah Whitehead speaks to refugee millennials https://t.co/VSI2oZpTbn— Sarah Phillips (@sarahlphillips)March 18, 2016
The sound design (Will Spartalis) [Thesaurus: throbs] reverberates around us and above Elizabeth Gadsby’s set; LED lights (Chris Petridis) traverse their way down pathways (Undirectional, curving: becoming an adult is realising our lives aren’t linear), pulsing, [Thesaurus: sparkling] glowing bright then cutting out – flowing flowing energy that illuminates and connects everything. (How long until we don’t need to plug anything in at all, until energy exists in the air all the time?)
Beneath this flow, the white foam squares sit, disconnecting everyone. Some actors have to talk over the whole playing space to communicate with their scene partner; others sit just a metre apart. But still, apart they are: shared space, shared environment, but separated.
“Some ride hoverboards into the kitchen for the free snacks.” (aka I got your new hate-reading right here) https://t.co/mJpa67gYKF— Helen Lewis (@helenlewis)March 19, 2016
Deluge is an ambitious debut for this company, and an ambitious work for the youngest artists in the Adelaide Festival of Arts, Yet, I feel Tiny Bricks could have pushed their ambitions further. If Deluge is supposed to be the radio on in the background while you’re should be writing a review but are really on Twitter, it’s all a bit too neat. We get a depth of understanding for each of the characters, but the work as a whole isn’t able to speak as loudly as it would hope to for what it means to be caught up in this world of over-saturation. Life is messy; we skip thirty seconds back on that podcast, we go back and re-read what our brains didn’t register – or we don’t, and we let the lost be lost. (Sometimes I worry I’m too distracted to be a performance critic.)
— Bhakthi (@bhakthi)March 20, 2016
The fragmenting of our attention means we don’t always follow every strand in Deluge, but Jelk and Kavanagh seem hesitant and scared of what would happen if they were to heighten this and push us into a space of confusion, or fear. (When it’s over my friends and I leave the theatre, back to living in the noise and the panic and the suffocation. I worry in the theatre there isn’t enough and the older audience can’t feel it. I want the artists to be mean to their audience.) Even while Deluge shows us young people fighting – they’re fighting for PhDs and to get out of bed in the morning; they’re fighting for religious paths; they’re fighting at war and fighting for their gender –as I leave, it still feels a little too safe. The deluge of the title is never fully realised.
“Just then, Fillmore, the office rooster, strutted by.” https://t.co/dXFgiPfdeu— emily nussbaum (@emilynussbaum)March 23, 2016
Deluge never claims to capture the breadth of lives of those under thirty. Rather, it opens the curtain, ever so gently, into a generation of people making grand missteps, grand achievements or just plodding along their path. Multiple narratives are shown to be possible and of worth. (It’s only in being added to the Facebook group for my ten-year high school reunion that I realised how radical my single, childless, freelancing existence is amongst that cohort.) Perhaps, then, while I wished for fear, this gentleness is the most refreshing and gratifying thing about Deluge. It never tries to be a think piece. (No think piece could ever truly be about the Millennial Generation, because it is a fundamentally meaningless distinction.) It’s a documentary of and by the Millennial Generation, but it is also only ever a story of where these ten people sit and the tiny, near insignificant place they occupy in space and time. Some worries will be shared. Some stories will be universal. Many won’t. In the end, Deluge suggests, perhaps all we can do is sink into the mess and the noise, and exist.
Jane Howard is a Contributing Editor at Kill Your Darlings, and her work appears regularly at The Guardian and Fest Magazine (Edinburgh).