‘Mouthpiece’ was provocative.
To say the aggressive onstage sex act was unexpected is an understatement; but it wasn’t the only surprise for the audience during Queensland Theatre’s latest production, ‘Mouthpiece.’
Directed by Lee Lewis and presented at QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre with socially distanced seating in effect, the two-hander by Kieran Hurley co-stars Australian stage favourite Christen O’Leary and charismatic newcomer Jayden Popik.
O’Leary seemingly effortlessly plays fading middle-aged playwright Libby, desperate for a muse, and Popik is enthralling as teenager Declan, who takes breaks from his life of poverty and abuse by visiting a secluded spot atop the cliffs to draw.
Until Libby interrupts – taking over his spot and ultimately his story.
The set design by Renée Mulder was minimal and the use of space effective: half a dozen black blocks to act as cliffs, cafés or bedrooms and two large screens onto which apparent stage directions and dialogue were projected.
Pulp’s 1995 hit played as the audience waited for the show to begin.
“She came from Greece, she had a thirst for knowledge,” Libby sings to Declan at the start of their relationship, apologising for “going all Common People on him.”
The ‘90s music and metaphors continued throughout – successfully showing the contrast in the characters’ ages and cultural points of reference – and setting the mood for the audience, the majority of whom appeared old enough to have fond memories of listening to the music of REM, Nirvana and Hole.
Sound by Tony Brumpton and lighting design by Ben Hughes were well-used to punctuate moments when O’Leary seamlessly switched between Libby and a narrator figure, explaining where we were at in the story and which plot device should be used next in order to “follow the rules.”
Yet the play also broke the rules – with a jolt to the audience in a cleverly presented question-and-answer scene. As Declan referenced disgustedly, it was very “meta.”
The themes are heavy: class inequality, domestic violence, alcoholism, suicide, poverty, sexual consent.
“And the world around you just keeps getting worse,” Libby tells Declan.
But her middle-class experience of “worse” is far from that of her young muse.
“Everyone has a story,” Libby says.
Declan replies: “Nah… some of us just have lives.”
It’s a credit to Hurley’s writing that amidst the grim subject matter, there were so many moments of humour. The audience laughed out loud on multiple occasions, largely due to Declan’s colourful Queensland slang and clever one-liners.
Translated by Phil Spencer, the play has been Australianised from its original Edinburgh Fringe Festival version, which won the 2019 Carol Tambor Best of Edinburgh Award. The Brisbane audience agreed in the play’s award-worthiness – cheers and a standing ovation rewarded the actors in the Playhouse on Wednesday night.
‘Mouthpiece’ was provocative in the questions it posed: What are plays? Why is some art free and some reserved for those who can afford to pay? How can a cycle of poverty or abuse be broken? Can stories change the world? Who gets to tell stories and what happens when “The Voiceless” wants to use his voice? Is the audience an “empathy machine” or just a group of voyeurs?
Audiences are left to consider these questions, along with a more personal contemplation: whether we identify with the well-off theatre-goers, the “common people” or somewhere in between.
‘Mouthpiece’ runs until 14 November at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre (QPAC) Playhouse. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit the QPAC’s website.
Click here for our Theatre Haus interview with star Jayden Popik.
Photography by Stephen Henry