Maverick Life

THEATRE REVIEW

The raw and the cooked – ‘The Rangers’ is theatre meant to hold you on a knife edge

The raw and the cooked – ‘The Rangers’ is theatre meant to hold you on a knife edge
In from the cold - Lyle October (left) Aidan Scott (centre) and Nicholas Pauling in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

Daniel Newton’s debut play is designed for a generation raised on fast-paced, clever-dialogue films and TV shows where the signifiers fly fast and furious – and the weirdly harrowing storylines keep us enthralled.

The Baxter’s small, tucked-away-down-the-stairs-and-around-the-corner venue, Masambe, is a logical space for experimental theatre. You walk in there with few expectations and yet, by the time the show’s over, that space might just spit you out having had your mind blown.

If you don’t mind having the raw and the uncensored, the oblique and the sometimes dangerous thrust in your face, it can be the ideal venue to experience full-blown exposure to something fresh, unanticipated and potentially discomforting. It may disturb you, even appal you.

In the case of its current production, a three-hander by newcomer playwright-director Daniel Newton, “raw” is very much a theme. Nerves are raw, emotions are raw, the hunted meat hanging from the walls is most definitely raw (don’t worry, though, no moose was harmed in the making of this production). 

It pays to suspend your disbelief a bit as you watch The Rangers, a play set in Canada, supposedly beyond the Arctic line, where there’s an ominous cabin – the interior of which is the play’s setting – and there are slightly disgruntled Inuits, and there’s a history of people going missing (either in the blizzards or at the hands of bears or some other snowbound monster), and there’s a missing brother who, having been raised by abusive hippie-cultist parents somewhere in South Africa, has been hiding for more than a decade.

He’s been mailing his younger brother, though, once a year on his birthday, so there are clues hinting at his whereabouts. 

Those clues have led the younger brother and his heavy-boozing best friend to this rough-looking cabin – all we know is that it’s somewhere in Canada, somewhere in the testicle-shrivelling cold, somewhere grim. On a literary level, it’s somewhere designed to conjure subliminal links with countless cabins in the woods, and with an associated  inventory of horror movie tropes, dredging up our darkest fantasies of what nightmares can and might go down in such a chilling location. 

What unfolds is a dark and sometimes funny, sometimes perplexing play about the past catching up with the present, and about a deepening mystery – we are fed a sense that something unspeakable has happened, and that some awful truth is yet to be revealed.

Menacing mood – Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

Menacing mood – Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in ‘The Rangers’. Image: Daniel Newton.

Brothers with a traumatic past - Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

Brothers with a traumatic past – Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in ‘The Rangers’. Image: Daniel Newton.

He's no lumberjack - Nicholas Pauling (right) as the long-missing big brother and Aidan Scott (left) as the sibling who got left behind in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

He’s no lumberjack – Nicholas Pauling (right) as the long-missing big brother and Aidan Scott (left) as the sibling who got left behind in ‘The Rangers’. Image: Daniel Newton.

It’s also very much a macho play, relishing the frisson and danger that seems to ooze out of the dynamics of having three guys, each somehow at odds with the other, in a small cabin together. There’s an air of danger that’s exacerbated by the proximity of way too much home-distilled booze and all that raw red meat hanging on the walls. Plus there’s the incongruous nature of the verbal battles that erupt, seemingly out of nowhere, and there’s the too-calm tone of that long-lost older brother who seems to have spent way too much time alone in that cabin, a lot of time brooding, a lot of time perfecting the measured timbre of his speaking voice, getting it to ooze menace. 

Rage and anger are frequently unleashed in torrential outpourings of abusive language, violent volleys of complicated sentences peppered with big words and overabundant expletives. The peppering is sometimes a little strong, as if designed to call attention to itself, urging those of us seated in that tiny theatre to shift uncomfortably in our seats, wondering if grown men really do speak like this, if unrehearsed language is ever quite this showy. 


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If the tone of unease and under-the-surface violence are there to make us feel uncomfortable, even more of a scab in need of scratching is the frequent referencing of the past. Something in the childhood history of these two brothers hangs over their heads, heavily and powerfully, like the sword of Damocles. 

Ultimately, what’s left unsaid is also the real source of the play’s literary power – the unease we experience is distilled from a deep sense of dread that comes from our inability to really know what has happened in the past, our inability to resolve that childhood trauma. 

We are forced to imagine what the sickening events from that childhood might be, what worrisome, terrifying thing happened to these lads growing up with evil, hippie-commune parents, parents who would invite their adult friends over to laugh at their sons, parents who are still alive and therefore got away with whatever it is they’re meant to have done. 

Whatever it is, whatever terrible actions went down, those end up being a vital source of the audience’s collective agonising. It’s a clever theatrical device – it keeps us hanging, gagging for resolution. 

But instead of revealing the past, the play becomes about how the past has led to this particular moment, and how the past will potentially result in something even more terrible or terrifying or both. The play wants to create mood and atmosphere and hold us in suspense, have us sit with that uncomfortable, uncanny, inexpressible feeling, that sense that everyone in that cabin is just one harrowing speech or one sip of distilled hooch away from blowing their top. 

It’s anyone’s guess who might blow his top, when that might happen, and for what reason.

A cabin in the woods - Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

A cabin in the woods – Aidan Scott (left) and Nicholas Pauling in ‘The Rangers’. Image: Daniel Newton.

Verbal violence and raw meat – Lyle October (left)_ Aidan Scott (centre) and Nicholas Pauling in 'The Rangers'. Image: Daniel Newton.

Verbal violence and raw meat – Lyle October (left) Aidan Scott (centre) and Nicholas Pauling in ‘The Rangers’. Image: Daniel Newton.

Ultimately, the when and the why become less interesting than the who, and it’s this tricky unfolding of the narrative as the dialogue propels the play towards its unexpected dénouement that is the real game the playwright is playing with us. It is a guessing game, a play of wits, a mystery and a whodunit that is ultimately a “who will do it?” 

As much as it’s about unresolved trauma, The Rangers is also laced with comedy, perhaps not always in service of the atmosphere the play is attempting to evoke – while it wants to be creepy, some of the comic moments undermine the tone the play is aiming for. 

It’s also a bit hit-and-miss in terms of the reality that’s being created. You can’t, for example, help wonder why there is raw meat hanging in a room with central heating, or why sometimes it’s okay to leave the heated cabin and set off into the Canadian outback without gloves, without even a jacket.

Yet such technical oversights and the resulting lack of plausibility are forgivable because the play is less about any physical truth as it is about the psychological derangements and violence happening inside its characters’ heads. It is a play that wants to explore the grim extremes of human waywardness, and the unexpected effects of a traumatic childhood. And it wants to do that in such a dazzlingly weird way that it’s guaranteed to have people in that audience verbalise their discomfort when the moment comes. There will be loud gasps, for certain.

Like the meat curing on the cabin walls, the text itself is still a bit raw, but that’s perhaps part of the charm, especially in the context of this intimate theatre space where it’s important for writers and directors and actors to take chances, for the imagination to be allowed to run wild, and for audiences to be made to squirm. DM/ML

Written and directed by Daniel Newton, The Rangers stars Nicholas Pauling, Aidan Scott and Lyle October. It’s showing at The Baxter Theatre’s Masambe stage until 1 April. Tickets via Webtickets.

'The Rangers'. Image: Supplied

‘The Rangers’. Image: Supplied

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