Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club reviews, February 2013 [March 8]

Due to unforeseen circumstances I was unable to deliver my Culture Club reviews live-to-air on 774 ABC Melbourne last month, but nevertheless here they are. (And I’ll definitely be on the wireless again on the afternoon of Thursday 28th March)

In the last month I’ve been to see two different MTC productions in which the lead female character is dealing with dramatic cognitive deterioration. Given the dire predictions of increasing rates of age-related pathologies such as dementia, and given the preponderance of older people amongst the MTC’s subscription base, these plays are playing to exactly the right audience at exactly the right time.

The first MTC production, ‘The Other Place’ by American playwright Sharr White, appears at the beginning to be a fairly traditional ‘well-made play’. The main characters are a middle-class married couple, Juliana and Ian, who are on the verge of divorce. They are estranged from their only child but there is still hope a reconciliation might be possible. Juliana, a geneticist, has made a scientific breakthrough and is in the middle of presenting her findings to a medical convention when something strange starts happening in her head. Many rapid scene changes ensue, include flashbacks to conversations in a doctor’s surgery and to strained phone calls with her daughter and son-in-law. At first we believe everything we are seeing through Juliana’s eyes. Gradually, though, our faith begins to falter as more and more things don’t add up. Is she getting divorced? Has she really spoken with her daughter? Does the son-in-law even exist? Juliana, it turns out, is an unreliable narrator.

‘The Other Place’ is a play about a mind in the process of disintegration and White conveys Juliana’s confusion with an ingeniously jumpy narrative structure. Catherine McClements plays Juliana as a tightly wound neurotic to whom we gradually warm as her bewildering aggression melts into vulnerability. Ian the long-suffering husband, played by David Roberts, is a character drawn with less complexity – he’s almost a fall guy to Juliana’s larger-than-life personality – and there were a couple of moments when his reactions to his wife’s condition seemed a tad melodramatic.

This could be an issue of direction. Film director-turned-theatre-director Nadia Tass occasionally takes the clichéd option with scenes of great emotional weight, when ‘less’ could have been ‘more’. Heidi Arena plays a number of different female characters, including the couple’s daughter, a doctor, and a ‘stranger’ who has to deal with Juliana when her confusion is most acute. Arena’s acting was uniformly superb.

This was a fresh and emotionally engaging production of a deftly-written play dealing with the universal subject of human suffering and I confess I shed quite a few tears in the dark. We should all cross our fingers that we don’t wind up in ‘the other place’. The season ended at the Playhouse of The Arts Centre on March 2nd.

The second MTC production I saw recently was ‘Constellations’, another play in which the lead female character has something going very wrong inside her head. Once again, the narrative has been deliberately fragmented but British playwright Nick Payne has taken this technique much further than Sharr White. The two characters, Marianne (Alison Bell) and Roland (Leon Ford), are trapped in a perpetual ‘ground hog day’ universe in which scenes and conversations are replayed over and over, each time with slight variations of mood or tone or attitude or text. We are offered multiple alternative endings to situations, meetings, arguments, relationships and medical diagnoses. As I describe it I realize it could sound like an intensely annoying night out at the theatre but – on the contrary – it was entirely exhilarating.

Once again, the lead female character is a scientist – in this instance, a theoretical physicist – so Marianne understands the so-called ‘multiverse’ theory that posits the co-existence of an infinite number of alternative ‘quantum universes’. Nick Payne has played with this idea by creating for Marianne an infinite number of alternative pathways for her relationship with Leon and for her serious medical condition.

There is something operatic about the way the text weaves back and forth in this play with often only minor variations, like a Donizetti aria. Minor variations can be harder to learn than new text (or music) and I take my hat off to Alison Bell and Leon Ford, whose performances were astonishingly detailed and utterly convincing, even when scenes varied only slightly. These actors were truly virtuosic and credit must go to director Leiticia Caceres for plotting the emotional path through the textual maze. Poignant, funny, and hyper-real – see it if you can. ‘Constellations’ is on at the Fairfax Studio of the Arts Centre until March 23rd.

There must be something in the air in Melbourne because the third theatre production I saw recently also includes a female character who is struggling with her memory. Red Stitch Theatre is presenting ‘4000 Miles’ by American playwright Amy Herzog, a four-hander about an elderly woman and her grandson temporarily sharing a small apartment in New York. Vera (Julia Blake) is proud but lonely so when Leo (Tim Ross) arrives out of the blue her initial resistance to sharing her space soon fades. Leo’s traveling light, at the end of a long cycling trip, but he’s carrying a ton of emotional baggage following the death of a close friend and the end of a romance.

The play explores what it means to be ‘family’ and what makes a ‘community’ and is a subtle critique of how contemporary capitalist western societies have become emotionally atomised as individuals pursue their desire for self-actualisation, oblivious to the loneliness and poverty all around them.

Julia Blake is one of my favourite Australian actors. Her consistently excellent performances should be an inspiration to anyone hoping for a long career in the performing arts. Her Vera is simultaneously a frail and anxious elderly citizen and a cheeky, open-minded old broad. And Tim Ross (who I last saw doing a wonderful performance in Red Stitch’s ‘The Kitchen Sink’) is a perfect match for her, with a relaxed, under-stated portrayal of a self-absorbed, damaged young man.

I confess I didn’t entirely love the play. Occasionally the poignancy of the story was undermined by swerves into soap opera territory, most often when Leo’s girlfriends appeared in the apartment. But the story kept me interested to the end, and the efficient set (the living room of Vera’s apartment) constantly drew our attention back to the odd couple sharing confidences on the worn lounge setting. ‘4000 Miles’ is on at the Red Stitch Theatre venue in St Kilda until March 9th.