Blue: Sydney Festival 2023

Michelle East
21st Jan 2023

Thomas Weatherall. Dancer. Writer. Actor. Kamilaroi man. Exquisite, accomplished debut. Mesmerising monologue. Life-affirming therapy. Impossible talent at 22 years.

The writer
Weatherall describes Blue as "a very personal fiction". It tells the story of Mark, a 20 year old aspiring writer who is struggling with the process of growing up. Mark wants to emulate his mother despite being painfully aware that he is not her favourite son. It’s time to leave home, so he moves into a student share house and finds love. Mother and son write letters to each other, it is easier to talk honestly this way.

Blue is a coming of age story that explores difficult topics with grace and tenderness. Family, mental health, suicide, life, love, grief, death. Personal and familial trauma sweetened with unexpected levity and dark humour. How do you find the strength to keep going when the odds stack against you? Weatherall taps the power of connection and writing as a form of therapy. The play comes with a content warning, but the ultimate message is one of hope.

Weatherall's writing is rich with visual metaphors. Central is the ocean as life's journey. Beautiful, restorative, dangerous and chaotic. His descriptions of love as car crash and four stages of a house burning bring nods and laughs. As a nation that hugs the coastline, the pull of the ocean feels as universal as the themes explored. His writing on mental health rings true with a cathartic openness.

The actor
For someone who accidentally became an actor, Weatherall has enjoyed quick success. During his last year of high school, he landed a lead role in ABC's Deadlock mini-series. In 2020, he enrolled in drama at Queensland University of Technology. He landed his first major role in Channel 7 drama series RFDS. In 2021 he won a fellowship to develop Blue. In 2022 his Malakai won AACTA Best Supporting Actor for Netflix remake Heartbreak High. 2023 he is starring in his own monologue.

With the tremendous reception to the teen drama, it would be easy to dismiss Weatherall as a celebrity heartthrob. Alone on stage for 80 minutes, there is nowhere to hide. Weatherall commands our full attention for the duration with his natural performance. A disarming mix of charisma and vulnerability, Mark comes across as both humble and wise.

The director and creatives
Deborah Brown provides subtle, guiding direction. Brown is best known for her work as senior dancer and choreographer at Bangarra Dance Theatre. She brings depth and breadth of experience as a director of film, theatre, and music, and as a performer. Brown takes advantage of Weatherall's dance background and physicality. She keeps the plot moving and Weatherall on track in a very wordy stream of consciousness. Weatherall owns the stage, as easily as he has the TV screen is no doubt due in large part to supporting direction.

Set and costume design is by Jacob Nash (Head Designer at Bangarra Dance) and Cris Baldwin. A wave with a single chair provides the background for interior and exterior scenes. Concealed in the floor is a reflecting pool for Mark to reveal, conceal, paddle about and dive in. The white textured surface reminiscent of a surfboard or an esky. It provides a screen for video designer David Bergman to project images of the ocean. The curved, textured surface adding to disorienting undertow. Sound design by Wil Hughes adds texture and nostalgia. Lighting design by Chloe Ogilvie signals changes in location and mind. The lighting sometimes feels overdone in the second half. By this time, we are in so deep with Mark, we don't need quite so much signalling. The combined impact of the creative team is stunning, scenic, filmic.

The supporters
Great theatre does not happen without great supporters. Shout out to the Balnaves Foundation, Belvoir St Theatre, and Sydney Festival for their contribution to giving First Nations artists space to create, nurture a community of creatives and provide resources to reach the audience. 2023 is a most important year for us to listen.

Weatherall is the 2021 Balnaves Foundation Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander Fellow. The alumni demonstrate the importance and great success of this fellowship. Dalara Williams (2022), Jorjia Gillis (2020), Nathan Maynard (2019), Kodie Bedford (2018), Megan Wilding (2017), Ursula Yovich (2016), Katie Beckett (2015), Leah Purcell (2014), Jada Alberts (2013) and Nakkiah Lui (2012).

Sydney Festival's Blak Out program showcases an outstanding group of First Nations artists. Blue’s set designer Jacob Nash is Blak Out’s Creative Artist in Residence. Blue is one of 15 events on until the end of January.

Belvoir St Theatre presents two Indigenous led works each annual season. This year, it's Blue and At What Cost?.

The audience? Opening night of Blue was a full house. The audience listened intently, shed some tears, nodded along, laughed out loud, and gave Weatherall a heart-felt standing ovation. The couple to my left "let's have a drink and unpack". The couple to my right checked in with each other. Half the audience lingered afterwards to share reflections with friends and strangers. The foyer was full of animated conversation. The vibe was one of recognition and hope. Weatherall’s therapy letter signed, sealed, and delivered.

Blue is playing at Belvoir St Theatre until 29 January 2023.

At What Cost? a second chance to see Balnaves Fellow Nathan Maynard's powerful play at Belvoir St Theatre during May 2023.