Queensland Theatre returns to the mainstage with a localised production of Kieran Hurley’s incisive, darkly funny two-hander Mouthpiece, a powerful and provocative work full of unexpected turns examining authenticity, access, and accountability in art and storytelling.

MouthpieceJayden Popik and Christen O’Leary in Queensland Theatre’s Mouthpiece. Photo © Stephen Henry

Directed by Queensland Theatre Artistic Director Lee Lewis and starring Christen O’Leary and Jayden Popik, Mouthpiece follows the unlikely relationship that forms between washed-up playwright Libby, in the midst of a mid-life crisis, and talented teenage artist Declan, whose troubled home life often sees him retreat to the cliffs above the city with his sketchbook. It is in this isolated place that they meet by chance, and begin a tentative friendship that becomes an artistic collaboration.

As Libby draws inspiration from Declan’s life, she appoints herself as a voice for the voiceless while continuing to silence him, his experiences framed only through the lens of her playwrighting. She uses her platform to elevate his story for her own benefit, protected by her privilege as she carelessly crosses boundaries in pursuit of her own desires.

Jayden Popik made an outstanding and memorable debut with Queensland Theatre in the role of Declan, especially held in direct relief with such a seasoned and dynamic performer as O’Leary. From his first lines to the play’s heart-pounding conclusion, Popik seemed entirely at ease with the many facets of his character, delivering an expressive and highly physical performance.

O’Leary brought her characteristic dynamism to the stage as Libby, delivering impassioned monologues about art as an idea and an industry, and the mistakes and misery of middle-class life. The onstage chemistry between the two actors was tense and electrifying as power shifted between them throughout the play.

Christen O’Leary and Jayden Popik in Queensland Theatre’s Mouthpiece. Photo © Stephen Henry

Initially set in the playwright’s home city of Edinburgh, Scotland, with dialect translation for the Queensland production by Phil Spencer, Hurley’s Mouthpiece asks and accuses the audience directly about their role in the theft of stories and the gatekeeping of arts and culture. The action of the play is interspersed with brief lectures about story structure and playwrighting from Libby, and the audience is eventually drawn into the play itself, no longer passive bystanders but complicit in the action. With these established boundaries blurred and rules changed, the silence that fell after the final scene was deafening, an audience holding its breath, wary of applauding after being so thoroughly berated for our role in this storytelling. As strains of R.E.M.’s Orange Crush returned life to the stage, the applause broke out wildly.

Design by Renée Mulder transformed a minimalist set of black boxes into a cliff’s edge, a city café, a house, a theatre, and a few choice props added Queensland flavour to the production. Sound design by Tony Brumpton was a soft touch that accentuated changes of scenery with few visual cues, and included a few moments of classic rock from Hole and R.E.M. Lighting design by Ben Hughes was sparse and focused, and projections were used to great effect to set the scene, hold the second half of a conversation, and create a split, unreliable narrative as the play soared to its climax.

An acerbic examination of class, privilege, and power as they interact with art, Mouthpiece interrogates the accessibility of arts spaces, the ethics of storytelling and well-worn narrative structures, and why we make art at all: a bold and direct line of questioning for artists and audiences in the face of months-long closures across the sector worldwide. A simple story wound around a complex tangle of questions, and elevated by the riveting performances of its actors, Queensland Theatre’s Mouthpiece asks us to consider who owns the stories we consume, who is allowed to tell them, and who truly benefits from their telling.

Mouthpiece plays at QPAC’s Playhouse, Brisbane until 14 November


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