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Director Lucas Stibbard warns audiences that Delicacy is not a nice play — a wonderfully delicate phrase to use. This two-person, one-hour play, inspired by the life of German cannibal Armin Meiwes and his lover/meal, will make you squirm and cringe for what feels like hours. Although the show turns on the question of “will they or won’t they consummate their cannibalistic plan?” — a morbid twist on the old romantic trope — the characters’ domestic exchanges generate some of the most keenly felt discomfort.

Neil (Cameron Hurry), the character to be eaten, flits between psychotic bursts of aggression and agitated silence. Even when utterly still, as when he watches porn at the dining-room table, he vibrates with explosive unpredictability. Denny (Gregory Scurr) is a picture of passivity, absorbing Neil’s physical and verbal abuse to respond with praise and apologies, attending to Neil’s every whim. A review of an earlier production of Delicacy compares Denny to a manservant. In contrast, Stibbard and Scurr’s Denny, though servile, also achieves a fine layer of menace. If he feeds, praises and dotes on Neil, he does so in the manner of a attendant to a human sacrifice.

Costume designer Rachel Cherry transforms the mostly vegetarian Denny into a butcher figure with a simple transparent plastic apron. Their monochromatic clothes — Denny in pink, Neil in red — continually remind us of the blood, its flow and its release, that is at the heart of this play. Elongated silences punctuate Neil’s outbursts; in these silences Denny’s mask slips. Deep shadows in his eyes, created at these precise moments by Cameron Parish’s clever lighting, reveal a brooding and impenetrable core. These indirect touches sustain a brilliantly tense and uneasy mood in a play that is quite coy about the cannibalism that forms its gothic centre. Early on, our only clues are cryptic references in otherwise domestic dialogue.

Delicacy

Similarly, Bec Woods’ set is ever so slightly unnerving: recognisably domestic — a dining room and a kitchen — but exaggerated, distorted. The kitchen bench extends too far and ends up looking industrial. When Denny cooks, the kitchen dwarfs him. The dining room table seems huge with Denny and Neil crowded together in one corner. In stark contrast, a single, preposterously strong light above the dining table occasionally constricts the stage to illuminate just the table, creating a claustrophobic mood where before the space had seemed unmanageably large.

My one problem with the play involves its script. The story diverges quite significantly from the events that inspire it, which is not in itself a problem. The problem is that these divergences strip the original story of its interesting nuances. To recap the headlines, two otherwise likeable and normal-looking men, who shared affection, consensually agreed that one should eat the other. The men were well-regarded in their neighbourhoods — likable, relatable cannibals. It’s a true story that raises compelling questions.

On the other hand, Julian Hobba’s script turns both of these people into eminently unlikeable characters — selfish, childish, and violent — which immediately throws up a wall between them and the audience, letting viewers off the hook. There’s no chance that they will empathise with either Denny or Neil, short-circuiting the original story’s moral quandary.

Ultimately this play is not so much about cannibalism as it is a play that involves cannibalism. This story doesn’t plumb the depths of what it might mean to perform the act of eating another human, but it is a well-told gothic tale — tense, suspenseful, and shocking.

Delicacy runs at the Brisbane Arts Theatre until Jun 15. http://www.artstheatre.com.au

JEREMY THOMPSON was assistant arts editor at OffStreet Press. His work has been published in Small Packages, Rave Magazine, Voiceworks, and Notes From The Gean.