If Lismore – the centre of New South Wales’ Northern Rivers region – was to be represented in a single image, it would be a heart.
A longtime symbol for the area, used after flooding in 2017 and in tourism campaigns, it has taken on a deeper meaning in 2022. The city of more than 27,000 residents suffered two record-breaking major flooding events this year, and is facing a painfully slow recovery with more than 3,000 damaged properties, thousands of displaced residents, and a traumatised population.
It has been holding on tightly to the heart as a signifier of solidarity. Residents camping in destroyed homes hang hearts in the windows to tell the community they’re still here. Business owners display them to express their love for their neighbours.
And in the final moments of Love for One Night, the devised theatre work by Northern Rivers Performing Arts (Norpa) – their first after the disaster – two Love for Lismore hearts flash on giant screens against the facade of the Eltham Hotel.
The 119-year-old pub, just a 15-minute drive from Lismore, was always going to be the site for this production about the people and relationships on display on any given night in a rural pub.
But everything else has changed for the company. Their home at the Lismore City Hall was destroyed (as were the homes of many employees); they have let go of seven staff.
That Love for One Night has made it to production feels remarkable; watching it from a crowd of local community members, all of them leaning forward in their seats – an elevated bank temporarily erected in the pub car park – is a gift.
As a work, Love for One Night is a salve. Like those Love for Lismore Hearts, it beats for its people.
Written by Janis Balodis, devised by ensemble and directed by Norpa Artistic Director Julian Louis, the play is structured as a series of vignettes that follow pub patrons (Lloyd Allison-Young, Claire Atkins, Phil Blackman, Zoe Gameau, and Katia Molino) over the course of one night. Ex-lovers reconnect. Strangers share moments of electricity. Couples try to hold it together; relatives seek new understanding from each other.
Sometimes, it seems, these things can only be worked out by a post-work beer or a bottle of wine, and the company reaches for glasses like they reach for other – expressively, lyrically, through dance-inspired movement (courtesy of movement consultant Kimberley McIntyre).
Weaving that physicality together with the play’s more traditional scenes are two key elements: live-feed video and interstitial video projections by Poppy Walker and Mic Gruchy, and a soundscape created by Jamie Birrell, the musical director. Birrell summons a three-piece pub band (he’s joined by Luke Bennett and Ben Cox) to conjure the emotion – and, occasionally, play the classics, like Cold Chisel’s Flame Trees or Neil Young’s Harvest Moon.
The night I attended actually was a harvest moon, and it hung brightly over the stage, keeping close watch with a smattering of stars as the production played out in front of, and through, the hotel. Sunny (Atkins), is the Eltham’s housekeeper and our guide to the space. As the show’s true north, her phone calls with her son, and her clear positioning as a beloved community figure, colour the piece with much-needed emotional honesty.
Many of the standalone scenes are highly stylised – there’s a little melodrama, a touch of camp, and generous serves of comedy – and the live video feed helps viewers peer through scenes to observe and discover the story on a deeper level. When the audience laughs, often as a collective, it feels like a balm.
A storyline where a man recounts losing his wife to a cult had the audience, well aware of the local Universal Medicine cult, in knowing stitches; a dance-forward piece that has peacocking singles assume the aspects of the bird in question provides welcome comic relief. But it’s Sunny imparting unexpectedly moving life advice to her son – about being present in exactly the moment you’re living – that suddenly catches in the throat and leaves you moved. It all comes back to Sunny, really: when she reconnects with a woman after cleaning her flood-stricken home, the whole piece seems suffused with the love it promised us in the title.
It’s not surprising that it’s the emotionally rigorous scenes that are the most successful. These impossible, intangible concepts often make the most sense to us when we see a body wearing them; seeing a performer express something essential about what it means to be human is the magic of theatre. In a time of great upheaval and distress, it’s often the outstretched hand of another person that eases the burden. Some of us are more ready to receive that hand in a pub that feels like home, offered by an actor who , after just 75 minutes, feels like a friend.
Love for One Night is a Love for Lismore Heart in beating, blood-thumping action: after the play, the audience spilled onto the stage and made it their own. They sat at its set-decorated tables to share a beer with family and friends; groups stayed in the seating bank to chat. In less than five minutes, the playing space transformed into a space for meeting and connection. We were comfortable, sharing nods and smiles with strangers. We felt the love – for Lismore, for the villages surrounding it, for neighbours and friends.
Love for One Night runs until Saturday 24 September at Eltham hotel
Guardian Australia travelled to Lismore as a guest of Norpa