The cackling pair that makes your seat shudder before the lights go down. The bustling – if not mingling – warmth of the audience, murmuring excitements and speculations with an eagerness renewed. The dust motes that dance through the glow of the footlights. The musty smell of old seats and day-worn suits. And finally: the way the air thrums as bodies move through space and voices whisper, intercut, interject, scream and let silence thicken. The sharp intake of breath from the person seated behind you; the way the shoulders the person in front of you suddenly slump. The simple sacred pleasure of watching a story unfold in a shared space as one.

It’s good to be back at live theatre.

Gemma Bird Matheson in SuperheroesGemma Bird Matheson in Superheroes. Photo © Prudence Upton

At the Seymour Centre, Mark Rogers’ Superheroes has made it an entirely welcome return. A play that spirals its way under your skin, it asks its audience to consider the damage that is done not just to others but to ourselves when we wilfully surrender responsibilities in our personal and political lives. When – out of fear, or self-preservation, or cowardice – we choose to close off the borders of empathy and care, because reaching out across that border is too much. When we instead say, as one character does: “I don’t have room, I’m full”.

The play traces the parallel stories of two women, set on two sides of the world. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, there is Jana (Claire Lovering). In Thirroul, NSW, Emily (Gemma Bird Matheson). At first, their lives seem to operate on two entirely different registers. Jana, clutching a bag of groceries to bring back to her war-embittered mother, is appealed to by a family of refugees while on the side of the road. But she has her own loaded baggage – so not only does Jana refuse, she reacts violently and an unintended horror ensues (“the word that comes to mind is ‘flattens’”). Switch to Emily, who obsesses over why Simon isn’t texting her back.

Claire Lovering in SuperheroesClaire Lovering and Aleks Mikic in Superheroes. Photo © Prudence Upton

The counterpointing tones of sombre and superficial are initially jarring. But just when you start to wonder what precisely the playwright is trying to say – that us western millennials are so shallow? – the bait and switch mechanism locks in. Simon isn’t just a hottie Jana is desperate to confirm her official ‘bf’. He is responsible – on at least one literal level – for the child growing inside of her. The question that follows is, who cares.

Following a stranger off a bus, disassembled by trauma and guilt, Jana yields towards connection when a simple slice of kindness is offered. On a beach, Emily and Simon approach a hypothetical they might be able to believe in enough to make real. Then fear – that bullying saboteur, that bridge-burning gas-lighter – steps in.

To what extent does this clenching of hearts and minds have to bear on the miserly politics of today? Rogers’ play suggests this hardness can leave intergenerational deposits, too, like an acid mineral drip.

At what cost, though? What do we sacrifice when we sacrifice nothing? Is self-interest really ever that? The play’s final scene – in which the two storylines converge – gently offers an answer.

Aleks Mikic & Gemma Bird Matheson in SuperheroesAleks Mikic and Gemma Bird Matheson in Superheroes. Photo © Prudence Upton

Developed for a significant stretch over Zoom, Superheroes on opening night testified to the excellence of the cast, the nimbleness of the crew and the finesse of Shari Sebbens, a high-profile stage and screen actor who makes with this play her directorial debut. Lovering is affecting in her portrayal of the wretched Jana. Matheson jolts the audience into laughter and then enfolds them into the crenelations of Emily’s distress, not initially on view. Aleks Mikic, who traverses the two worlds as Simon and a Bosnian teen on a bus, is versatile and convincing, realising his characters beyond straightforward edges. The set is simple, and the lighting and music – bar one scene that goose-pimpled my flesh – subdued.

Superheroes won the Patrick White Playwright’s Award last year and has its virgin showing with Griffin Theatre Company. It’s a piece relevant to our insular age of abdications, excuses, tribalism and winnowing perspectives, and manages to elegantly pose a mesh of pressing questions, for all its moving parts. “This is not a COVID play (thank f**k!),” writes Rogers in the show program. “But I hope it somehow echoes the challenges we’re dealing with today.”

Superheroes is playing for a socially distanced month at the Seymour Centre. It is sold out. There is a waitlist. Ample evidence, you could say, of Sydney audiences’ hunger to return to these long-darkened storytelling grounds.

Griffin Theatre Company’s Superheroes is at the Seymour Centre, Sydney, until 31 October

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