For a work that playwright Phil Ormrod said was inspired by Family Guy, Isaac Came Home From The Mountain is no lightweight comedy. It’s perhaps the exact opposite – a 70-minute, seething blood-and-guts drama that dares you to look even as it prepares to punch you in the face.
The title comes from the biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, in which Abraham almost sacrifices his son Isaac in order to prove his obedience to God. Father and son relationships is the running theme in the play, and we get a tragically mismatched pair of them. The ne’er-do-well, drug-dealing Bobby Wainwright (Charles Furness) chafes against his straight-laced cop father, John (Guy Porritt). On the other end is belligerent alpha male Mike Scofield (Ian Burfield), whose son Chris (Kenny Fullwood) can’t even look him in the eye for fear of getting a tongue-lashing.
When Bobby finds work in Mike’s industrial shed, he finds an acceptance he’s never experienced before, and he becomes emboldened to prove to Mike just how manly he is. With shotguns, exposed wire and dead rabbits all over, the foreshadowing of violence in the play is obvious. The victims are a third father-son pair who are referred to but never shown, perhaps a representation of the many other men trapped in similar circumstances.
Set in rural England, the play suggests that this cycle of learned toxicity and male-on-male abuse is bound to repeat itself. Boys engage in posturing and play-fighting, men bully other weaker men. The bigger bullies, like Bobby and Mike, feel disenfranchised and unappreciated and lash out in destructive ways, at the expense of less overtly masculine men like Chris and John. All are hemmed in by their environment.
Despite the appropriately garish lighting and industrial, synth-heavy soundtrack (by designers Ali Hunter and Benjamin Grant respectively), I relished the quieter scenes in the play. When Mike brings Bobby to the top of a hill for a bout of rabbit-hunting, he marvels at the beauty of the surroundings in an unexpectedly affecting moment. Struggling to process his decidedly unmanly emotion to the younger boy, he can only say “I don’t have the words.”
Ormrod’s writing is sensitive and his characters full-bodied. In particular, I found the brave yet whimpering Chris (a promising debut by Fullwood) immensely heartbreaking. But some scenes were a tad baggy. At times, the bald emotion – the yelling, the lip, Bobby’s final realisation that he’s fucked shit up – grows trying.
Still, I appreciated the poetry found within the play. Bobby and Chris compete to see who can keep cigarette smoke in their mouths the longest without exhaling; Mike blows into John’s breathalyser for as long as he can, just because. These images are not just about turning virtually anything into a competition, but also suggest that their fates are intertwined.
There are also little touches that add muscle to the script. Set designer Eleanor Bull makes efficient use of the cosy Theatre503 space, opting to put up a metal partition to make the physical world smaller than it already is. Director Carla Kingham also creates a kind of choreography with the actors’ multiple entrances and exits, reminding us that these men can never physically, and perhaps emotionally, escape one another.
The plays ends without a clear resolution – John offers his son a way out of a dead-end situation, but we are not sure if Bobby goes along with it. It is unclear if Isaac gets to come home, after all. It’s a man’s world in Isaac Comes Home From The Mountain. While it feels like the punch doesn’t quite land, you end up reeling from the adrenaline anyway.
Isaac Came Home From The Mountain is at Theatre503 until June 2nd. For more details, click here.