Thursday, October 28, 2010

Theatre: Madagascar

Black Swan State Theatre Company
Written by J.T. Rogers
Directed by Kate Cherry
Featuring Rebecca Davis, Greg McNeill and Amanda Muggleton
Playhouse Theatre
27 October – 7 November 2010

There is a conjurer's trick you need to know to understand the dark acts that happened, or might have happened, to the four people whose intertwined stories comprise J.T. Rogers’ glittering melodrama Madagascar.
The rabbit in Rogers’ hat is that the three people who occupy the stage for the entire play (the other, although central to the action, never appears) are always alone. 
Lillian is the widowed matriarch of an endowed, intellectual New York family; she is alone in a hotel room in Rome five years ago, waiting for her son Gideon to arrive from Madagascar.
We meet her daughter June five days ago, living alone in the same room while she occupies her time mechanically taking tourists from the American sticks around the great piles of the ancient city.
Nathan is an earnest, not terribly eminent, academic economist, once the junior colleague of Lillian’s dead husband Arthur and for many years, much to his own surprise, her lover. He too is alone in the room, today.
Go back those five years. Gideon never arrives. Terrible things happen. 
Rebecca Davis (pic: Gary Marsh)
On the fairly rare occasions the characters interact it is only in their memories. Consequently there is barely any dialogue; the actors, Amanda Muggleton (Lillian), Rebecca Davis (June) and Greg McNeill (Nathan) almost invariably narrate the story directly to the audience.
The stage, beautifully dressed and lit by Alicia Clements and Jon Buswell, although recognisably the hotel room of the story, is refined, elegant, vast and all but bare; Ben Collins’ soundscape drifts just on the margins of our hearing, like music from another room.
By creating this floating, almost hallucinatory dreamscape, Rogers and director Kate Cherry (who understands what he is up to very well) are free to mess with our minds a little, and they do it with relish. Despite its sombre themes and tragic denouement, there is a sort of playfulness about Madagascar. References to Greek tragedy and Classical art are everywhere; Shakespeare bobs up (Lillian and her son are a Park Avenue Gertrude and Hamlet), O’Neill and Miller whisper in the corner. Demeter and Persephone reach out with fingerless hands, Pluto’s ardour engulfs Proserpina, Ophelia drifts away downstream, Gatsby floats cold in Lake Geneva and Gideon never makes the plane out of Madagascar.
It’s clever, gloriously black fun, but I'm not sure that the play really delivers on one of the claims made about it; that somehow it grapples with the end of “the American experience, as a separate experience”, that it shows there is a world outside America that Americans have to learn to deal with. To my mind these characters are full of the same enormous self-absorption that drives most American writing and most of the Americans they write about. Lillian and June go to Rome, but it's for the statues. Gideon goes to Madagascar, but his fellow aid workers say he wasn't really cut out for the work. Sure they are affected, but it’s still an affectation. They are still like earnest college girls from Pasadena and White Plains suffering from Stendhal Syndrome after too many days wandering the Uffizi on those interminable summer breaks of theirs.
That aside, the test for Madagascar's success is whether it creates a convincing reality. Could the things that happen to the people in the play have really happened? To the great credit of the play and this production, the answer, for me at least, is absolutely “yes”. 
And that opens up an intriguing possibility. A strange and shocking thing happens toward the end that maybe, just maybe, makes this singular, sad story the last thing you expected it to be; a psychological thriller about a perfect crime. You can judge this for yourself.
Greg McNeill (pic: Gary Marsh)
The show is lifted by fine performances from each of its actors; you ache for Rebecca Davis’s June, her state of shock, her thin fragility in her vestal robes. No such fragility about Amanda Muggleton; she sashays and storms through the play and, all these years after she famously put her body on the line in Shirley Valentine, Muggleton stretched out fully clothed is still capable of generating much more libidinous delight than a multitude stark naked. Greg McNeill’s Nathan, like Nick Carraway, is left to close the tale, his performance growing in confidence and stature as his character becomes more critical to the unfolding story.
The variety of regional American accents can be devilishly hard for non-American actors to nail precisely, and the actors wander a little unsteadily from Nu Joizee to Bawwston in the first part of the show. McNeill settles into sounding like a gainfully employed George Costanza as he gets up a head of steam, though Muggleton, a little disconcertingly, sometimes seems to be channelling that other sassy Goddess, Bette Midler. There are moments, especially when Ben Collins’ music swells a little behind, when you half expect her to slide into (You’ve Got to Have) Friends or Surabaya Johnny. Mind you, from the Divine Miss Muggleton, that would be a show-stopper!

Joanna Gentilli also reviewed Madagascar. Link to her call on the play in The West here!  Alison Croggon's review here! of the MTC production earlier this year in her Theatre Notes blog also makes interesting reading.

No comments:

Post a Comment