My obsession for public pools began when I was growing up in Perth at the iconic 1960s Beatty Park. Living in Melbourne I swam in the “aqua profonda” of the Fitzroy pool, listened to the underwater music (which in the 1980s was novel) at the Prahran pool and lapped at the pool that attracts attention for being named after a drowned prime minister — the Harold Holt. So, I was looking forward to Black Swan State Theatre Company’s new production The Pool, and it doesn’t disappoint.
Playwright Steve Rodgers’ love of swimming is the play’s genesis. A regular lap swimmer, Rodgers was struck by the diversity of people who gathered at pools and started to imagine their stories. What followed were interviews with workers at community pools and in aged care, teenagers, family and friends, and a play that celebrates the pool and its capacity to create community.
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Watching on from poolside
Directed by Kate Champion, the production of this play has been cleverly conceived as a site-specific work at the Bold Park Aquatic Centre’s outdoor Olympic pool. Given Perth’s current heatwave, this venue is welcomed. But beyond this, it enables us to experience the pool’s atmosphere – the smell of chlorine, sound of water lapping at the sides – and to be part of the action.
Seated poolside, we observe the goings on in and around the pool just as Rodgers did. But we don’t have to imagine the stories. Equipped with headphones, we eavesdrop on conversations and are privy to the characters’ inner thoughts in carefully woven monologues, as these characters reminisce, reveal long held secrets and whisper their fears.
The Pool’s characters represent the diversity of people who gather at pools and the myriad of reasons they go.
Loved-up teens Safiyah (Edyll Ismail) and Ananda (Tobias Muhafidin) are escaping the censuring gaze of adults. The over-60s trio of Roy (Geoff Kelso), wife Greta (Polly Low) and her buddy Val (Julia Moody) are healing their ageing bodies and family rifts.
Roy and Greta’s 40-year-old daughter Joni (Emma Jackson) is facing her fears. Quinn (Anna Gray) is looking for recognition. Morgan (Carys Munks) is seeking freedom.
Keeping these regulars afloat are poolside staff Kirk (Joel Jackson) and Sandra (Kylie Bracknell) with their own reasons for being there. The actors, from equally diverse backgrounds and with a range of acting experience, create a convincing ensemble.
Passion for the pool
Conviction and authenticity are at the heart of this production. Rodgers’ passion for water and the pool washes through his play. The dialogue is carefully crafted to sound natural and not overwritten, allowing the audience to piece the stories together as we would in life. It also allows space for Champion’s expert direction.
In the program, Champion writes she has “always been drawn to art that recreates a sense of authenticity”. She has achieved this in The Pool with details that blur the distinction between reality and theatre.
As we are ushered into the space, swimmers are in the pool, prompting somebody near me to speculate on whether they were actors or actual lap swimmers. As a finale, members of the audience can choose to join the cast in an aqua aerobic session.
The actors’ movement in and around the pool and their entrances and exits are carefully choreographed not only to retain focus on the main action but to replicate the rhythms and patterns of people at public pools.
The Pool is greatly enhanced in its subtle shifts away from realism. Champion picks up on the aesthetics of the public pool, focusing on the sensuality of its water and beauty of its objects: handrails, ramp, deckchairs and lane ropes. Actors’ interactions with these features have been shaped to highlight the grace in our everyday movements.
Key to this poetic strain is a chorus of swimmers who appear throughout. They are sublime, morphing from being regulars lounging, lapping, diving and performing impressive bommies to performing carefully choreographed water sequences that frame and comment on scenes.
Their inclusion greatly contributes to the poignancy of the play.
A place of connection
Crucial to all this is the audio. The use of headphones for the audience creates an intimacy with the characters. Composer and sound designer Tim Collins’ finely nuanced score supports the action without dominating, and without any hitches.
There are more than 2,000 swimming pools open to the public in Australia. They have been sites of protest and social change. This production shows they are also a space where we can have a laugh, shed our skins and find or lose ourselves – and ultimately find connection with others.
At a time when we sorely need it, The Pool speaks to our humanity. The opening night audience left buoyed.
Black Swan State Theatre Company’s The Pool is on until 25 February.
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