18 January 2023

At Dinner is tense and challenging new work for emerging Canberra theatre stars

| Genevieve Jacobs
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woman in red at table

At Dinner explores the tension that develops across a table. Photo: Supplied.

The setting is a restaurant abuzz with conversation – and, perhaps, with tension.

We’ve all been there: you’re out to dinner and while your partner, mother, or friend is no doubt scintillating company, what on earth are those people at the next table talking about?

Canberra playwright Rebecca Duke and director Holly Johnson will premiere Bec’s work, At Dinner, at the ACT Theatre Hub on 9 February. The piece has been two years in the works, following a residency at Canberra Youth Theatre, where the pair honed their skills.

It’s essentially a two-hander, tightly focused on the pair sitting across the table from each other.

“A young couple who have gone out to dinner together after spending a long time apart because they’re both at university in different cities,” Bec says. ”But actually, in the room, a completely different thing is conveyed.

“While these characters are relatable in their feelings about each other, some of their actions and the ways they try to manipulate the conversation are not conventional at all. It creates a dynamic that’s funny but also a little bit disturbing.”

The stripped-back cast and setting require strong writing, staging and acting to keep the audience’s attention and Bec says the sizeable challenge for a young writer is why she decided on the format.

“I was thinking about how I could do something that exposes my writing, so I can see all of its weaknesses and pick them apart and make myself a better writer through the process of writing this play,” she says of the two-year development process with Canberra Youth Theatre and ACT Theatre Hub.

“I knew that if I did pick this set-up, I would have support to work through it and actually be able to grapple with this pretty difficult project.”

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It’s been a long journey between words on a page and players on the stage. Holly’s direction now brings the work together with a cast of young local actors.

Holly and Bec are deeply grateful for the opportunity to produce the play through the Theatre Hub. The process reduces costs and provides support, making it possible to bring new work to the stage without major financial risks.

Under Holly’s direction, the audience will fill the role of voyeurs as the couple’s relationship plays out.

“I want to have that flavour of being out to dinner, looking at other couples, and when it’s appropriate to judge the power dynamic,” she says. “I’m trying to tease out the elements that are definitely in the text that we really wanted to beef up.”

Holly has been part of the play’s development since Bec gave her the developed draft and asked her to direct.

“It is such a simple setting and plot to really draw out and experiment with,” she says. “There are a few elements of that genuine theatre surprise. That’s the reason that I love doing this kind of theatre work, those live elements of playfulness that you can bring to a show.

“This will be an immersive, experimental night out. It’s a 60-minute show, the length of a dinner but full of twists, turns. I think people are going to be pretty shocked by it. They’ll have lots of discussion points, that’s for sure. It’s not the kind of thing you will count up and go, ‘Well, that was a nice night out’.”

In the next few weeks, Bec begins a Master of Fine Arts (Writing for Performance) at NIDA, with her sights set on a writer’s career, while Holly, who is currently working as a lawyer in the arts world, also wants to build her skills as a director. For both, the future looks bright.

At Dinner, written by Rebecca Duke, directed by Holly Johnson and Rebecca Duke and featuring Tim Cusack, Thea Jade and Nakiya Xyrakis, is at the ACT Theatre Hub from 9 – 11 February, bookings here.

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