by Lois Achimovich
Directed by Aarne Neeme
With Roz Hammond, Dan Luxton and Luke Hewitt
Writer, director and lighting designer Chris Donnelly
Sound designer Joe Lui
With Alexa Taylor and Jeremy Mitchell
Blue Room Theatre
13 – 31 March 2012
The American poet, Anne Sexton, is little remembered today, but in the 1960s her Pulitzer Prize-winning confessional poetry bridged the gap between her greater friend, and fellow suicide, Sylvia Plath, and the introspective singer songwriters that rose to prominence around the time of her death in 1974. She was a star, and she burned like one.
Red Silk, Lois Achimovich’s play about Sexton, directed by the distinguished Aarne Neeme, does a fine job of historical fiction recounting the poet’s psychological decline in the late ’60s. Roz Hammond plays her large: flirtatious, magnetic and lugubrious. Luke Hewitt and Dan Luxton, as the conflicted psychiatrists who treat and exploit her, give strong supporting performances. Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s economic design, especially her leading lady’s hubba-hubba little grey dress, nails the period nicely (Hammond could walk into series five of Mad Men without batting a socket-lined eyelid).
Achimovich, a practising psychiatrist, deals authoritatively with the issues of patient abuse, conflict of interest and misdiagnosis that blighted Sexton’s therapy, and I don’t doubt Hammond reproduces her symptoms and behaviours accurately.
But for all its undoubted qualities, Red Silk has two fatal dramatic problems, even if they are psychologically correct, and even unavoidable. Hammond overacts outrageously throughout, and while to begin with this is fun and sexy, in a Valley of the Dolls sort of way, it wears thin quickly and sometimes embarrassingly. I understand how difficult it is to find a balance between verisimilitude and stagecraft – and I accept that Hammond, Neeme and Achimovich could mount a convincing argument that the character was played just as she was in life – but that made the performance no less easy to take.
Much the same problem afflicts the whole play. It reaches a peak of tension and conflict early and bounces along those heights without let-up or development thereafter. This leads to some almost comic infelicities that exposed the problems in the script: I can’t exactly remember the first time Hewitt’s character, the psychiatrist Martin Orne, bursts out with variations on “I can’t stand this any more – get out!”, but it wasn’t far into the show and had no perceptible effect on either the other characters or the plot. Once said, it was repeated with odd regularity throughout, like a running gag in an episode of Monty Python. Frankly, if he’d have said it just one more time, I would have been sorely tempted to take up the offer.
The later show at The Blue Room, Luminaire, by writer, director and lighting designer Chris Donnelly, solidly performed by Alexa Taylor and Jeremy Mitchell, is an extended musing on the quality of light that, in turn, Donnelly sees as a metaphor for beauty, love, creation and, in its absence, the void and death. At its best – some remarkably achieved effects with fibre optics, fluorescent paints, smoke and lights – it was quite magical. And if the ruminations that comprised the script were forgettable (I must confess I all but switched off the words and happily immersed myself in the pretty visuals), they did no harm to an inventive hour or so of sensory delights.
An edited version of this review appeared in The West Australian