War's A Stage

12 June 2014 | 3:22 pm | Dave Drayton

“It came down to very oversized silky underwear, and very, very strong leg muscles"

Melita Rowston had a strange sense of déjà vu when, in November last year, she was on stage at New Theatre for the announcement of their 2014 season, which included the Australian premiere of Christopher Durang's Broadway hit, Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them. “When we launched the season last year, there was a woman at Manus Island who had been separated from her baby, and Abbott said, 'While the government deplores the use of torture, we accept that sometimes in difficult circumstances difficult things happen' – which are lines in the script, which are based on what Bush was saying during the War on Terror.” As Operation Sovereign Borders dealt with yet more disrepute, Durang's searing satire of the 'War on Terror' mentality seemed a scarily perfect fit.

Rowston got into theatre to put Australian stories on stage, so to take on a story by an American playwright was a little out of character – it was at this moment, though, that any doubt as to the play's relevance went out the window. “When we launched I thought, 'I hope the play's relevance won't be out by June,' and here we are, like, fuck. It's timely, and, terrible to say, but, fortuitous to be doing a show that connects so deeply with this darkness that's happening in our culture.”

Spiralling out in the wake of a drunken shotgun wedding with a violent groom, Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them puts the effects of the US's 'war' at home under the microscope and amidst the absurd assembly of characters is a government operative who has trouble keeping her undies around her waist. At the end of the day, Why Torture Is Wrong, And The People Who Love Them is still a comedy, albeit one darker than a solitary confinement cell, and nothing says comedy like underwear jokes. It's a great gag, but not without a few mechanical hurdles to overcome. Rowston and Romy Bartz, who plays the government operative, tried weights, wearing Spanx, a series of different fabrics and sizes for the underwear (the weighted undies were an industry trick developed by Belvoir during The Underpants under Neil Armfield's direction in 2003) in order to solve the problem of how to have undies drop on command. “It came down to very oversized silky underwear, and very, very strong leg muscles,” laughs Rowston, “another skill for an actor to put on their resume.”

It's the balance between the two – a confronting investigation of the darker side of our political culture and underwear-dropping comedy – that has kept Rowston on her toes. “There's torture scenes that you need to make kind of scary, but there's a woman with her underpants 'round her ankles the whole scene. Juggling the tension of those worlds is what it's all about.”

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