Sylvaine Strike

On the Harmful Effects of Smoking Tobacco

Director: Sylvaine Strike

Cast: Andrew Buckland,Toni Morkel

RATING: *****

LECTURES tend to be more painful for an audience to endure than the orator. For Ivan (played by Andrew Buckland), however, delivering a lecture on the titular “Harmful Effects of Smoking Tobacco” proves torturous.

He fidgets, blinks (a nervous twitch), moves around the podium and struggles to remain with the topic. This can be partly attributed to the fact that he doesn’t really think that smoking tobacco is that harmful; he implies that being able to develop the stamina to give up smoking can be so liberating and empowering everyone should take it up just to experience this sensation.

It is a bit like wishing to be imprisoned just so that you can truly revel in freedom. This idea resonates deeply with Ivan’s conflicted predicament.

Certainly, it sheds light on why he is giving a speech on a topic he doesn’t give two hoots about and is locked in a relationship with a woman who dominates him to such an extent that each inch of freedom he is able to claw back is savoured.

This lecture presents just such an occasion because she coerced him into doing it. He begins his rebellion by veering off the subject and then gradually working at imploding all the conventions attached to a public address to the point at which it no longer fulfills an instructional function.

This lecture devolves, or evolves (depending on how you view it) into a revealing soliloquy in which Ivan lays his inner demons bare.

This serious turn takes place gradually, as he slowly slips out from behind his public mask and the light tomfoolery he employs to shore up his ego, entertain us and prevent himself from slipping too far into a pit of despair.

His condition is not unusual. His wife may offer him love and affection but she is also his albatross; he is stifled if not suffocated by her. This has a real consequence for his masculinity. His wife’s overbearing nature is a threat to it, though ironically it seems that the root of her disregard for her husband is the fact that he is “not man enough”.

She may be the central antagonist in this drama but she is an absent figure, a non-speaking character played by Toni Morkel. She hovers in the background, functioning as a figment of Ivan’s imagination. He can never escape her, and in some ways he doesn’t want to; it is clear he adores her despite the way she has emasculated him.

Ironically, the very qualities she has a hand in squelching are the ones she wishes her husband possessed. It is a surprise to be confronted with this paradoxical condition; the premise of the play initially appears so simple and light, yet ever so gradually director Sylvaine Strike (pictured) draws you into a tense drama that escapes any kind of easy resolution.

This approach is characteristic of Strike’s directing and theatre-making; at her best she always guides the audience quite gently towards a dark place, a precipice between tragedy and comedy.

Buckland, of course, plays a major role in transporting the audience to this nuanced and ambiguous psychic state. Characteristically, he employs his distinctive non-verbal or gestural vocabulary to draw us into Ivan’s reality and his fantasies.

For ultimately during the span of this lecture, he gravitates towards an imagined place, where he can find freedom. Interestingly, though not unexpectedly, this space is rooted in an imagined and stylised notion of a primitive Indian American society, where gender roles are thought to have been more firmly defined and men were men, or perhaps their physical strength guaranteed their domination.

Naturally, this world is beyond his grasp and perhaps it is this imagined notion of masculinity that is the construct that imprisons him and not his wife, though she too plays a role in sustaining it.

On the Harmful Effects of Smoking therefore presents a stimulating and nuanced meditation on the politics of masculinity and their effects on relationships. This statement is surprisingly coherent, given it is the result of a bricolage of texts by well-known authors from Kafka to Austen that William Harding, a member of Strike’s Fortune Cookie Theatre Company, has woven together.

With Strike’s refined directing, Buckland’s convincing immersion in this pitiful character, the result is a moving piece of theatre that strikes at the heart of the gender crisis that grips our society.

Despite its social relevance the work isn’t a one-dimensional vehicle for a straight message; this is sophisticated theatre-making that probes complexities, while even titillating and entertaining the audience. This production will undoubtedly stand out at the National Arts Festival and confirms why Strike has been selected as the feature artist.