It’s a tough role to play, being sexy but menacing, charismatic but not charming, violent but appealing, but Rory O’Keeffe succeeds as Francis in Tom at the Farm, now playing at Sydney’s Kings Cross Theatre. He’s the very roughest of trade, playing psycho-sexual games. Power, sex, torture, pride, and pain… It’s a big night of theatre in a small play.
Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom à la ferme / Tom at the Farm may be familiar to many for the 2013 film adaptation by Xavier Dolan which holds pretty close to the original play. Tom (Zoran Jevtic), an urban twenty-something, finds himself in the countryside to attend the funeral of his boyfriend William. But the family never knew William was gay. When William’s mother Agathe (Di Adams) invites him to stay at the family farm for the night, Tom wakes up to find Francis, William’s older brother, on top of him, grabbing him by the neck. If Tom reveals William’s sexuality to his mother, there will be trouble.
Simply staged, Tom at the Farm is all about emotional complexity making people do unpredictable things. There are lies and secrets, fuelled by a seething mix of grief and regret. Tom is frightened of Francis, but sees in him the ghost of his boyfriend William. Francis is trying to protect his mother, and the livelihood of the farm, while fighting his repression and rage. Agathe just wants to understand what happened to her sons and why her life is filled with pain.
I kept thinking of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? A complex couple playing cruel psychological games on each other and those around them to mask their own trauma. The difference in Tom at the Farm is that this isn’t just a war of words, the wounds are physical. But the twisted attraction is powerful. Tom, abused and broken, gets what he wants in return. It’s a sick version of his own life with William in which the betrayals and pain are no longer just emotional. Think of it like a darkly gothic version of the film God’s Own Country as if it were written by Tracy Letts.
The key to making it all work is making sure the audience believes that Tom would stay and not run for the hills at the first opportunity. It’s a mix of violent threats, the remote location and the psycho-sexual attraction that keep Tom immobilized. How much of Francis’s threats are real? How much does Tom want to shield Agathe from more pain? And how good is it to be held by Francis, even if his grip is too tight?
But this isn’t torture-porn on stage. Let me rephrase that, it’s not JUST torture-porn on stage. For all the hot “choke me daddy” energy, there are moments of humour that cut through the tension. The arrival of Sara (Hannah Raven), Tom and William’s work colleague, breaks the claustrophobic atmosphere.
Director Danny Ball keeps things clear and effective. The violence mainly happens in blackouts, but the aftermath feels real. Although one of the acting performances didn’t quite gel for me, overall this is an impressive, impactful production that overcomes the budgetary restrictions of fringe theatre. The text is overwrought at times, but the clean, crisp production keeps it grounded.
Tom at the Farm is a dark, fucked up ride that revels in ambiguity and shadows. It delivers a tightly coiled, suspense-filled thriller in 90 minutes that’ll leave you wanting a drink downstairs afterwards.
By Chad Armstrong
Tom at the Farm, by Fixed Foot Productions, plays at Sydney’s Kings Cross Theatre till September 10. Click here for more info and tickets.