Booker (Adams) and Zachary (Green) are childhood friends. They’ve grown up used to each other’s opposing quirks and views on the world through high school, military training and numerous horrible postings. The play opens with them navigating a dangerous minefield in enemy territory. Everything is going fine until Zachary steps on a mine. It doesn’t detonate immediately, but if he moves his foot then he’ll surely be blown up and horrifically killed. In the unenviable position of having complete control over when he dies, Zachary and Booker begin to discuss death, rebirth, rescue and all manner of deep questions on reality and morality.
More a philosophical thought project than a play, The Modern Coil intelligently draws inspiration from Schrödinger’s famous theory highlighting the absurdity of multiple-state-physics and then connects it to the modern-day infinite universe theory to blur the lines between what is real and what is simply imagination. With such complicated themes, the dialogue sacrifices a degree of realism but as long as you are prepared to give the play a high level of focus, you’ll be kept interested instead by the cleverly contemplative writing style.
Ara Steel’s set design is impressive in its simplicity, building a stage out of only cardboard that still conveys the quiet, looming danger of a warzone. However, the horseshoe arrangement of the seating brings about the huge, glaring flaw in this play. In high school drama you are taught a simple, cardinal rule: don’t face your back to the audience. Now, this rule gets to be bent every now and again for dramatic purpose, blocking requirements or similar reasons. However, in The Modern Coil, Tom Green spends the entire first hour of an 80-minute performance with his back to the majority of the audience and it just doesn’t work. Compounding this issue, for the first half hour Adams is placed behind him, alienating members of the audience from both performances. It’s an inexcusable mistake of direction that completely dampens the majority of the play.
When I was able to watch the actors, both Green and Adams are incredible as they present the personification of optimism and pessimism. They are both equally charismatic and charming in their opposing characterization and do a tremendous job of lifting heavy-handed dialogue from the page that, in the hands of lesser actors, could easily have felt stale and stilted.
This is a genuinely clever, though provoking and well-performed play. You just have to sit somewhere where you’ll actually see it.
★ ★ 1/2
The Modern Coil ran at Erskineville Town Hall as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.
Cast: Atlas Adams and Tom Green.
Creative Team: James Hartley (Director), Ara Steel (Designer), Keziah Knight (Stage Manager) and Seb Vervoort (Lighting/Sound Operator).