There are three main stories told in Rust, each with its own intrigue and suspense, but while Vaughn Rae has written them as individual stories, there is much that ties them together. "The show is about three different relationships that reach breaking point over an evening," he tells me. "A pair of young women contemplate their future in a hostile world, two former soldiers on opposite sides of war battle with their growing attraction and a marriage crumbles under the weight of betrayal and secrecy, and gradually these lives crash into one another."
"Almost all the characters are pieces of a large, complicated family so the history between them is pretty strong to start with," adds performer Sarah Hartnell who plays Renee. "Vaughn and Sophie have taken the "two houses both alike in dignity" idea one step further by marrying them together and then shoving them into a huge house to see how they cope. Every single relationship is high tension and high stakes. One of the strongest relationships is probably Martin and Renee who tie the separate families together. As two of the queer characters (and being out to one another), they have an honesty and understanding with each other that is on a far deeper level than the rest of the family."
"One of my favourite things with Rust is that even characters you don't expect to be interlocked have hidden connections. There are residents who are connected by their work in the war and The Resistance, and the only non-family member has a thorny behind-closed-doors relationship with Martin. Throw in a betrayal, an affair, a betrothal, the duties of war and a ticking clock and their stories virtually can't be separated," Hartnell explains.
Since reading the script, Hartnell has been passionate about this production and having the chance to play a character that she didn't know she was destined to. "I left the first rehearsal with the realisation that Renee is the dream role I never knew I wanted. She's a lesbian in the middle of WWII, married to her gay best friend, fighting covertly in the French Resistance Nancy-Wake-style as she tries to run away with the love of her life," she enthuses. "She's loosely based on the Romeo archetype so there's a big scoop of that romantic idealist in there but she's also stubborn and impulsive. She often wears her heart on her sleeve, which isn't necessarily the smartest choice for a woman in the 1940s and it doesn't always serve her well. She loves hard and hates strong, and at the end of the day prioritises love and freedom above everything else. She's far from a saint but she's highly complex and raw, which is an absolute delight in a romantic female lead."
A challenge with immersive theatre is ensuring a suitable space is selected to suit the tone and theme of the production. For Rust, this was Eildon Mansion, the home of Alliance Française de Melbourne, and Rae could not be happier. "It's simply an incredible place and even though the story came first, once we found the venue it helped influence the storyline immensely," he recalls. "The building was designed by Reed & Barnes (who also designed the Royal Exhibition Building and Trades Hall) in the 1870s but Eildon Mansion has retained many of its original features and is one of the most sophisticated examples of a Renaissance Revival style mansion built in Melbourne in the nineteenth century."
As the audience wander around and explore the mansion, they never know who they might come across in a room or hallway. These surprises are something that Hartnell is looking forward to as they walk in and out of her scenes, and in some cases be right next to her as she performs. "I'm sure my current feelings in this will change when I'm halfway through a dramatic revelation and there's suddenly someone inches from my face but at the moment I'm incredibly excited to be performing in this," she says. "This kind of work means we get to do special things with the venue and scenes. Because the audience are with us in such tight quarters we can relish in those subtle, intimate moments, which are always fun to play with."
"However, I would be lying if I said I didn't feel a bit exposed but that's also the thrilling element of this. Where else do you have the privilege of sharing the intimacy of a private conversation with ten other people? In what projects do you have the chance to perform a scene to 50 people in one minute and to a few the next? It's terrifying and intimidating but I wouldn't have it any other way. The fluidity and aliveness of the whole thing is exciting."
I ask Rae and Hartnell if they have tips or hints on navigating this maze of intrigue and their answers are vague but clear. Put simply, take a step and another and another, and see where you end up. "It is difficult to give a recommendation on how to watch immersive works like this as I believe everyone will engage with it in their own way," Rae says. "Some choose to stay with a small group and there are those who prefer to go off on their own. However, I think it's best to go with your gut. You need to accept the fact you will miss something but then you can simply come back and go down a different narrative path."
"I agree, people need to follow their feet with this. The characters and scenes are so complex and interesting that there's no correct place to be at any time," Hartnell echoes. "The story has so many layers and relationships that it's ridiculously easy to become invested in every storyline. Some will want to sample everything or they will want to sink their teeth into a specific character's plot. There's no a bad way to do it, but I would recommend to let yourself get swept up in the immersive goodness. Forget about missing anything and stick with the storyline that make you hungry."
1. The one food you can’t live without?
Sarah: I'd definitely live, but never being able to eat a cheeseburger again would break my heart.
2. What is the worst smell in the world?
Vaughn: Moist, mouldy clothes.
Sarah: The smell of welding and angle-grinding. Even thinking about it makes me shudder.
3. What is the strangest fact you know?
Vaughn: I don't know many facts - don't put me on your trivia team.
Sarah: In 1865, Uruguay won a naval battle on the seas against Brazil by using giant wheels of cheese as cannonballs.
4. How long would you last in a zombie apocalypse?
Vaughn: 48 hours! Zombies seem to have more fun .
Sarah: Depends on the kind of zombie. I'm not a fast runner, so if they're quick, I'm dead, but I'm pretty good under pressure and I'm a champion hide-and-seeker. So if I could survive the initial panic, I might be alright. In the end, I'd probably die doing something really stupid and my last words would be something like "it doesn't look that far, I could totally make that jump!"
5. Which animal are you most like?
Vaughn: A possum. They have more fun. Perhaps a Zombie Possum?
Sarah: Definitely a crow. Curious, creative, equal parts social and solitary, easily distracted by small objects, a strong witchy aesthetic, and just a tiny bit stupid.
Venue: Alliance Française Melbourne, 51 Grey St, St Kilda
Season: 21 January - 9 February | Tues - Sun 7:30pm, Sat 5pm
Duration: 90 minutes
Tickets: $40 Full | $35 Conc
Bookings: Midsumma Festival