Review: Stay Woke – Darlinghurst Theatre Co (NSW)

Written by Aran Thangaratnam, directed by Bridget Balodis

Review by Charlotte Smee

Set in the beautifully designed snowfields of Mount Buller, courtesy of Matilda Woodroofe, Stay Woke is a new play from Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre about two Tamil brothers, their partners, and the struggles of appearing “woke” in front of the people you love. Playwright Aran Thangaratnam draws on his experiences of being “locked in our houses, forced to interact with our families in ways we hadn’t before”, and presents that experience on the stage – asking us, how much of what we believe is who we are?

Woodroofe’s set design is simple, yet brilliant, presenting a wooden ski chalet complete with Perspex windows that build up with snow as the play goes on. Composition and sound design by Daniella A Esposito was a good tension building device, helping to fill space and pick up the pace where the writing couldn’t. Smooth transitions between playing music on a tiny Bluetooth speaker and loud tracks to signal a change in scene were particularly effective.

The play begins with younger brother Sai (Kaivu Suvarna) and his white Australian girlfriend Kate (Rose Adams) arriving at their chalet to find newly-vegan big brother Niv (Dushan Phillips) and his Asian Australian non-binary partner Mae (Brooke Lee) in the midst of preparing dinner for the night. You’d be forgiven for thinking that these descriptions read like a list of “who’s the most intersectional”, with this being the central conflict of the play. What follows is an uncomfortable, at times funny and endearing portrait of figuring out exactly who you are in the contexts of your woke friends, family and the big old world.

Funnier moments in the show were clever, throwaway jokes like Mae’s observation that white people love Radiohead’s Creep and a callback featuring Kate playing exactly that song on the ukulele. A game of charades featuring different combinations of the characters gave some laughs, to Niv’s frustration. Adams as the sweet Kate was bumbling and very funny, with her commitment to her profuse apologies and nervous mannerisms adding dimension to the role.

Suvarna as Sai is a convincing and useful foil to Philips’s Niv. Often shrinking next to Kate, muttering under his breath, and then finally taking a stand, he shows great range as well as a deep understanding of that ever-confusing bond between siblings. Philips brought a threatening sense of insecurity, and a huge voice that was sometimes overwhelming in the highest points of tension. Lee makes the most of their role with a laidback, fun attitude and precise delivery of the jokes they did have. Director Bridget Balodis brings a fast pace and some great moments of movement, particularly in the party scenes as the characters get higher and sillier.

Stay Woke is the beginnings of a statement on some important, difficult issues. Wokeness and identity politics are certainly tricky to navigate, and this makes them doubly tricky to write about and present on stage.

While the premise of the play is exciting, and rife with dramatic opportunity, it spreads itself thin by trying to include every possible combination of minority identities and every possible combination of arguments you could have about those issues. We hear over and over about Kate’s shortfalls in misgendering Mae, her past mistakes in brownface, her Dad being a cop; and by the time a truly interesting moment of Kate in the literal spotlight while Niv asks for the rest of the lights to be turned on comes, we haven’t had time to catch up. Inconsistent observations like Mae’s comment that the furniture was “weird”, when the chalet was actually quite stylish, let this play down further. What disappointed me most was that Thangaratnam tried to tie everything up with a bow, giving us a strained hug between Kate and Niv, and then Niv and Mae, and an underdeveloped moment in which Sai leaves behind a beloved leather jacket for Niv.

Stay Woke is the beginnings of a statement on some important, difficult issues. Wokeness and identity politics are certainly tricky to navigate, and this makes them doubly tricky to write about and present on stage.

Photos: Phoebe Powell

Reviewer Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Stay Woke plays at Darlinghurst Theatre until the 17th April 2022. Tickets and further information can be found here.

Set & Costume Designer MATILDA WOODROOFE
Lighting Designer RACHEL LEE
Composer & Sound Designer DANIELLA A ESPOSITO
Intimacy Choreographer CESSALEE STOVALL
Lighting Designer Realisation (Sydney) RYAN SHUKER

Rose Adams
Brooke Lee
Dushan Philips
Kaivu Suvarna

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