Jack Studio Theatre – until 15 June 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Madeleine George’s intriguing play examining language and communication centres around Brodie (Jenny Delisle), a linguist whose world is shaken when her amniocentesis test produces ambiguous results. The possibility of having a child that may not be able to speak terrifies her, and her girlfriend/postgrad assistant Dre (Jessica Kinsey) is no comfort as she does not understand the connection Brodie feels with her daughter after seeing her image onscreen. Meanwhile, Brodie continues her work involving documenting the almost extinct Kari language, recording sessions with Cleva (Deborah Maclaren), one of the last native speakers, with growing agitation from Cleva’s daughter Evelyn. The other major character in the play is an ape, played with wonderful dignity by Deborah Maclaren. After being used as part of a linguistic study, and being taught to respond to coloured symbols, the ape has been sent to live out the rest of its life in a zoo.
Madeleine George’s plot seems to wander at first, but everything comes together as the notion of connection through language is explored in every scene. From the condescending jargon of the enthusiastic but tactless counsellor, the factual but mindbogglingly complicated scientific terms used to describe genetics to the slack overuse of the word “like” in Dre’s everyday language, Brodie adapts her language to converse, with lots of wry humour, but never quite connects. The only character who constantly says what it actually means is the ape, describing its surroundings and actions in a clear and starkly poetic way that portrays its connection with and acceptance of itself in a way that many people search a long time to achieve. The contrast between the ape and the humans watching it at the zoo is very funny, with Jessica Kinsey switching seamlessly between a host of characters having ever increasingly vacuous conversations – my favourite being the mum trying to keep smiling as she negotiates through gritted teeth with her misbehaving child.
The beauty of language is talked about in a romanticised way by Brodie, but the magic is shown by Cleva in a monologue that will set your lips trembling as the old lady experiences a rush of memories as she says words aloud that she has not spoken for decades. The joy, hardship and terror of her childhood come flooding back as the familiar sounds form – the overwhelming feeling of hiraeth (sorry – no accurate English translation for that) felt for the land, language and community of your home. The sadness of Brodie’s desperate need to communicate and connect with the ape, and the beautifully quiet way this is achieved is palpable, and their silent moments of gestures as the zoogoers witter on around them say more about the ability of language to both connect and isolate than any words ever could.
The cast are phenomenal, with Deborah Maclaren exceptional in her movement work as the ape and wonderfully nuanced as Cleva in what initially appears to be a role of comedy light relief. Jessica Kinsey gives each of her characters huge energy and warmth, and Jenny Delisle slowly revealing Brodie’s pain and loss of control in a hugely sympathetic and believable performance.
Karl Swinyard’s minimal set and Ben Jacobs lighting combine beautifully to create a clear idea of the different places in the play. The lush light on the ape’s enclosure is wonderful, imbuing the scenes with an almost hypnotic relaxation as the ape sits in the sun. Julian Starr’s gorgeous sound design and music add even more atmospheric layers, and Kate Bannister’s inspired direction never rushes the action, allowing the cast and the story to gently evolve before the audience.
Precious Little is a play that will haunt you – a thoughtful and sensitive production with a stellar cast challenging the audience to think about how language is used and abused in our world today, and our own connections and communication with those we love.