Justin Nott’s Variations or Exit Music is an autobiographical autopsy of three prior relationships told through the lens of memory and years of introspection.
Eloise Kent’s set design is instantly gorgeous. She has transformed La Mama‘s beautiful Courthouse theatre into a literal shoebox, scattered with mementos, and a fitting home for Nott’s memories.
This conceptual clarity is ornamented with a joyous attention to detail. From the carpeting to the electrical sockets to the symbolic architectural collapse in the final moments, this stage is the perfect setting for the piece.
The claustrophobic space is given additional metaphysical dimensions by Clare Springett’s expert lighting design. She plays helpfully with colour and manages to manipulate space and, by necessity in this piece, time, to artfully create far more room for the characters than the stage could otherwise provide.
As a writer and director, telling your own story of heartbreak on the stage is a tricky business. One must maintain an artist’s critical distance from the subject while delving head (or maybe heart?) first into the most personal and painful moments of one’s past; a Herculean task.
Even if that balance can be properly struck, personal memory is a slippery substance to work with, chiefly because it must be mined from an internal, unaccountable and often irrational vein, all qualities that lend themselves to the style of theatre pursued in Variations.
With all that in mind, Nott has accomplished something quite special. With the aid of, it must be said, four brave and excellent performers, Variations is an interesting and unusual alternative to the more traditional representations of queer love.
The writing includes genuinely beautiful turns of phrase, and the interactions – particularly in the first ten or so minutes – are sharp and witty, with Lachlan Martin’s delivery a standout. The characters are engaging and playful, for at least as long as the opacity of their relationships to one another remains novel.
As the piece wears on, however, it cedes more and more time to Justin’s inner monologue, and the exciting promise of the earlier dynamics is not fully kept. There are engaging moments where Justin – ably portrayed by Matthew Connell whose voice is the perfect instrument for this text – expresses his emotional turmoil through action, but the dominance of words undermines the character’s deeply relatable, and often inexpressible, experience.
Lachlan Martin (Jason), Yuchen Wang (Sam) and Joss McClelland (Nick) maintain a strong sense of their characters throughout, but their exchanges with Justin too often struggle with dialogue that, falling short of poetry, comes across at times as that most uncomfortable of things, affected sincerity.
The result is a palpable loss of momentum in the second half, before finally finding its conclusion in a lovely moment between Connell and McClelland that leaves one’s faith restored.
The clever use of visual media, complimented by Danni A. Esposito’s music and Edwin Cheah’s sound design, and the strong and empathetic performances of the cast, are the real strengths of this production whose queer stories are a joy to experience.
Variations or Exit Music
La Mama Courthouse, 349 Drummond Street, Carlton
Performance: Thursday 15 September 2022
Season continues to 25 September 2022
Information and Bookings: www.lamama.com.au
Image: Variations or Exit Music – photo by Darren Gill
Review: Daniel Townsend