Stay Woke – Theatre Review

I have always been a firm believer in the fact that – you should walk away from a comedy, having learnt as much as you would when leaving a drama. I guess this is the reason why I enjoyed playwright Aran Thangaratnam’s debut play ‘Stay Woke’ so much last night.

Both Aran Thangaratnam and director Bridget Balodis shared in their speeches last night that “at the heart of ‘Stay Woke’ is a comedy”, but I would also argue that this is a piece of theatre that is going to pack a punch for its dramatic moments, just as much as it will make you laugh when it is at its funniest.

Stay Woke explores what happens when two couples travel to Mt. Buller for a weekend away in a ski chalet. I found myself very quickly drawn into the world of Stay Woke. Everything plays out with the help of an amazing set designed to look like a chalet that the character converse in, complete with snow falling throughout the performance. From the moment you sit down in the intimate setting that is the Malthouse, you feel like you are in that very same chalet with the characters.

The first couple consists of Niv (Dushan Phillips) and Mai (Brooke Lee), and they are as ‘woke’ as you can get. Niv is a vegan who is ready to pounce on anyone that he believes is politically correct, while Mai is non-binary and works for a company that educates big businesses on being more politically correct. The pair are also more than happy to share their overly intimate stories on details such as how they met in an orgy tent at the Burning Man Festival.

Sai (Kaivu Suvarna) and Jessica (Rose Adams) make the other couple. Sai is the estranged brother of Niv, with neither brother ever forgiving the other for past wrongdoings, while Jessica is a typical girl from country Victoria, and while she tries hard, she finds herself constantly stuffing up in front of Niv and Mai.

Yes, Stay Woke points out that the things that Jessica does and says at times is wrong, but it also explores the possibility that some people may be ‘too woke’. Some of the attacks directed by Niv at Jessica early on are so unnecessarily savage, to the point where anyone in the audience would see Niv as the villain in the piece. But such are the skills of Thangaratnam’s writing, that while you do find yourself quickly taking sides, at the same time, you can’t help but feel a compassion for all the characters.

There is a true power in the characters that Thangaratnam created, and there is a lot of hostility between the characters, that you can intensely feel their energy fill the theatre space. There are also times throughout the performance when you feel like your heart is in your mouth, and due to the amazing facial expressions of Rose Adams, you often feel Jessica’s hurt as your own. The ultra-cool Mai quickly becomes a favourite, as Brooke Lee does a sensational job bringing the character to life. Kaivu Suvarna also does a great job at making the often-quiet Sai relatable to the audience, while Dushan Phillips often steals the scene as the vicious and aggressive Niv. When he goes toe to toe with someone in an argument, Phillips shows that he is a true star of the Melbourne theatre scene.

I can see how Stay Woke may appear to be a possible 100 minute ‘preaching’ session of what one has done in life that is politically incorrect. But to the credit of Thangaratnam’s script, this play is anything but that.

Stay Woke is perhaps one of the most interesting pieces of theatre that I have seen in a long time. The intensity that Thangaratnam’s smart writing brings to the theatre is rare, and this is one writer I can’t wait to see more work from. ‘Stay Woke’ is a must-see for those that like well-written theatre with creative and interesting characters.

Stay Woke is now playing at Malthouse Theatre‘s Beckett Theatre in Melbourne until the 13th of March, 2022.
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Photography by Phoebe Powell.

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