BATS Theatre
STAB Season | Reviewed by Helen Sims

Heat is a play rooted in friction, passion and conflict, set in a cold and eerie climate. Yet it is also beautiful and lyrical, as well as intensely physical. This play of contrasts gripped me for its entire length.

Stella and John (played by Kate Prior and Aaron Cortesi respectively), are a husband and wife on separate scientific missions in Antarctica. He studies climate change, she is researching Emperor penguins. They are dropped off to a hut, remote from base, connected only by radio and a web cam. Although at first they are exhilarated, an uneasy tension pervades their relationship. It soon emerges that their application for research grants was prompted by more than scientific endeavour – they are escaping their guilt over the death of their son. Shut into a microcosmic world they can no longer avoid the emotions they tried to bury with their son.

Just as you begin to wonder exactly where the play is going to go in terms of the increasingly hostile relationship between Stella and John a third element is added – a penguin named ‘Bob’, who invades the hut after he is rejected by his group. Bob becomes the focal point of the suppressed feelings of Stella and John. She sees him as a replacement child, and at one point it would seem as a lover. John on the other hand regards the penguin with disgust, jealousy and finally as an object to compete with Stella over for affection.

Brian Hotter meets the challenge of playing an animal that has human emotion projected upon it superbly. He is strikingly penguin-like in his behaviour, but just as we begin to mentally accept the body-painted man as a penguin we are startled back into the realisation that the penguin is in fact a man. He becomes a strange and stunning catalyst for the huge emotional journey of the other two characters. The humour as well as despair that Bob injects into the situation is refreshing and riveting.

Brian King’s set design conveys the wide expanse of the frozen continent within the small space of BATS. The cramped and tightly packed cabin is nicely contrasted with the bare and icily lit landscape outside, with its only feature being an abstract block of ice. I enjoyed the playful, Brechtian way the characters ‘broke’ the walls and roof of the hut – it was a contradiction this play explored well through its script, characters, set, sound and lighting design. The line between fiction and reality is often at stake in theatre – it was great to see a play that confronted that so overtly.

As a STAB commission I questioned whether heat was particularly experimental. The play did not seem to meet its claims of sustainability – it seemed the original marketing of an environmentally sustainable production had changed simply to one that was “off grid”.

Heat may not be flawless, but it is challenging and exciting. It’s a thrill to see performances of this quality. O’Donnell and his team should be proud, and this emerged as one of the best and most engaging theatrical experiences I have had so far this year.