Little Borders at The Old 505 is an exquisitely crafted production, focusing on a middle-class experience of fear. Beyond the perils of casualised xenophobia, Little Borders dissects what it means to attain the privilege of safety and security, and to face the terror of potentially losing it. The play is subtle in its treatment of these themes, nuanced in its execution, and at turns hilarious and heartbreaking. The choice to tell the story using white actors, on a stage masked with an almost entirely white design, was frankly, comic genius. It gave Little Borders the right set-up to discuss the trappings of privilege, and invited the audience to be seduced by the murderously flawed protagonists, played brilliantly by Lucy Goleby and Brandon McLelland. Little Borders deftly treads the fine line between currying sympathy for the anti-heroes of its story, and condemning them for a life of glib superficiality, and subtle prejudice.
Written over six years ago, Little Borders won the 2011 Patrick White Playwright’s Award, and is written by Phil Cavanagh. This is its first outing on stage and the play is simply excellent. It tells the story of a young-ish couple, Ell and Steve, who move into a gated community as a result of their suspicion of the behaviour of former neighbours, presumed to be Islamic. In their new home within the gated community, there are man-made lakes, lush green spaces and crucially, guards to protect them. Ell, a highly-strung and flighty woman, has had six hours of sleep in a week, and Steve, her husband, has had his wings clipped at work. They’re both suffering in their own ways, and mostly as a result of the middle-class malaise that comes with being too comfortable.
Cavanagh has crafted a canny examination of the penalties and privileges of having protected oneself against everything. He uses a fine blend of satire and brilliant dialogue to point out the contradictions of Ell and Steve’s views, and also makes a somewhat affectionate indictment on the Australian temperament, reflecting our national character and our treatment of “the other”.
Both Goleby and McLelland possess a precision in their performance that is absolutely captivating. They are perfectly cast, and are both measured, thoughtful and engaging in their performances. Goleby’s subtle fidgeting betrays her character’s troubled mind, and her occasional outbursts are of a woman whose priorities may be slipping to somewhere outside of whack. McLelland’s slow and blokey drawl is deployed to devastating comic effect, and he is capable of commanding the stage and spinning the story of the play with great power. They are both exceptional actors and it is a privilege to see them work together, and in the intimate setting of the Old 505.
The design by Jeremy Allen and Charles Davis is spare, deliberate and clever. They have asked the audience to work, and visualise the places described by the characters, while obliquely referencing the sameness of a gated community. The beautifully hand-crafted cul-de-sac of miniature houses is a beautiful example of intelligence and humour, conjuring up the idea of “small-world mentality”. Clemence Williams’ sound design gives the entire show an eerie feel, and her playful sonic eccentricities complete the play’s transitions.
Dominic Mercer has carried this production well, and has directed a play that honours the text, the creatives behind it, the actors and as such, the very philosophy behind the Old 505. Mercer is interested in letting the creative horses in the team have their heads, and giving them the space to do their best work. His choices make for a seamless production that is clean, slick and exciting. He has also shown a commitment to new and (unfortunately) neglected writing. Along with the production of Little Borders, Mercer, through 8th Buffalo Press, has published a first edition of Cavanagh’s play, the proceeds from which raised money for production costs, and crucially, add to the physical stock of published, hard-copy Australian plays. Mercer’s production, his work at the Old 505 and his venture with 8th Buffalo Press is testament to his thoughtful approach to Australian independent theatre, and he should be commended for it.