Written by Aidan Fennessy
Directed by Stuart Halusz
Set and costume design by India Mehta
Lighting designer Trent Suidgeest
Sound designer and composer Brett Smith
With Kenneth Ransom and Marthe Rovik
Until June 22
By his own admission, Aidan Fennessy has set himself a difficult challenge with The House on the Lake.
The Melbourne playwright’s sad, powerful, National Interest was the standout in Black Swan’s 2012 season.
He returns with a whodunit with only two characters, one of whom, perforce, is the interrogator (a forensic psychologist, Dr Alice Lowe, played by Marthe Rovik). This leaves only one, David Rail (Kenneth Ransom) to be suspect, witness, red herring, perhaps victim or, perhaps, perpetrator.
Even Agatha Christie, with her effortless audacity, might have shied at that hurdle.
Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth also has only two characters, but he cheats a little in his attempt to pull it off. Perhaps The House on the Lake’s closest relative is Giuseppe Tornatore’s thriller film, A Pure Formality, with its theme of disorientation and amnesia and its close focus on interrogation rather than action.
There is precious little on-stage action in Fennessy’s play (and little of it off-stage that I can tell you about without breaching spoiler conventions).
David Rail wakes up in a hospital bed, in a room he can’t leave (is he a patient, a prisoner, both?). The other person in the room, Dr Lowe, tells him he’s been there for some days, has been in an accident and is suffering short-term memory loss. Indeed, we see it happening, with sudden blackouts and erased recall forcing Rail and Lowe to start piecing his immediate past back together again from the beginning.
As we learn more about those lost days, with Lowe’s questioning becoming more pointed and Rail’s responses more urgent, Fennessy gives us a neat tour of interrogation techniques, criminal psychology and legal manoeuvring. It makes the mid-part of the play’s 90 minutes its most interesting, and gives Rovik and Ransom their best opportunities.
In the end, though, it all gets too hard.
The clues, including a clumsily portentous passage from Edgar Allen Poe, are so easy to unearth, the penultimate twist so obviously a house of cards, that there’s little surprise, and nothing to gasp at, in the denouement.
There are other barriers to engagement: while there’s nothing particular to object to about either director Stuart Halusz’s staging or the actors’ performances, it’s hard to place, from the American Ransom and Norwegian Rovik, where we are. And while India Mehta’s design is finely detailed and impressive – and Trent Suidgeest’s lighting design, tracking time and tide in layers of colour and tone, was a thing of beauty – its mid-century institutional look seems at odds with the characters as they Google and text away under the gaze of a CCTV camera.
A strong sense of time and place is as valuable to murder mysteries as an interesting list of suspects between whom to ricochet suspicion – Ms Christie would never sally forth without either – but The House on the Lake, by going without, deprives us as well as itself.
This review appeared in The West Australian 10.6.14