Monday, July 4, 2011

Theatre: Ninety

Black Swan State Theatre Company
Written by Joanna Murray-Smith
Directed by Marcelle Schmitz
Featuring Paul English and Kirsty Hillhouse
The Studio Underground, State Theatre Centre
July 1-17, 2011

Joanna Murray-Smith
A man has agreed to spend 90 minutes with his former wife three days before he is to marry his much younger girlfriend. The former wife intends to use the time to persuade him to come back to her.
They met when he was her drama tutor, had an affair and married. Some years later he deserted her. He has become an internationally successful, award-winning actor and she an art restorer.
This is a very specific frame upon which to build a drama, full of possibilities but with very little margin for error. You have to be convinced by these two people, you have to come to want them to succeed or fail; and the working out of their situation needs to be clearly charted and reach a genuine and explicable conclusion.
Joanna Murray-Smith's Ninety fails on all these counts.
There’s a lack of precision about the establishment of the characters that robs them of credibility. When we meet Isobel (Kirsty Hillhouse), she is restoring a painting that, despite a clumsily-written attempt to cloud the issue, is clearly a copy of van Eyk’s The Betrothal of the Arnolfini. She’s going about her work in such a ludicrously amateurish way that it’s either a canvas no-one in their right mind would let her near, or it’s not worth restoring.
You might – just – let this slide, but the painting and her restoration of it are clearly meant to be a metaphor for marriage and what emerges from beneath its surface, and this is a far too important factor in the play to ignore the gross infelicities on which it is based.
The character of William (Paul English) is even less convincing. Australian actors who go on to brilliant international careers and win Golden Globes are, you know, Geoffrey Rush, and this guy just doesn’t cut that mustard. He’s much more the TAFE lecturer who does a bit of acting that he was when Isobel meets and, inexplicably, falls for him.
Worse, he’s entirely despicable in virtually every thing he’s ever done within and since the marriage. I guess people sometimes fall for creeps like this, and stay fallen against all reason, but that doesn’t make either of their stories compelling, or even worth telling.
Once we lose belief in the characters and the value of their relationship, things spiral out of control. Some of our precious hour and a half is lost to sex in which William contrives not to remove, unbutton or unzip any of his clothes, even though Isobel manages to get both topless and athletically akimbo (and, oddly, wants him to do whatever it was he did again). There’s one of those stock “men are from Mars” routines from William that can be unfunny anywhere and here is merely risible. There’s a bizarre little brawl that reminded us of ones we have at home over the remote control (but still needed, for some reason, the services of a fight director). Out of nowhere, Isobel throws in a lengthy confession to an affair with William’s freckly, but apparently less flighty, sportswriter brother.
When a couple who’ve been through a lot together find themselves with limited time to talk their way through a crisis to the light, they just don’t talk like Isobel and William.
This is a time for a rare sort of intimacy. So much doesn’t need to be said — they already know how they got together; they don’t need to tell one another where they went on their honeymoon. They certainly don’t need to expound on the meaning of life or marriage. They need to find a way to a future together.
But instead, so much of this play’s dialogue is redundant exposition and tiresome reminiscence that instead of feeling privileged to be watching the inner workings of a marriage, it’s as though we are somehow a third person in the room the couple feel a need to explain themselves to. And that often makes the whole exercise at best voyeuristic and at worst excruciatingly embarrassing.
It’s inevitable that behind all this nonsense there’s going to be a Big Secret, and you just know what it’s going to be long before it gets out.
When it’s out, and we have final confirmation that William is a loquacious prat and worse, and she a basket case for mooning over him all these years, they have a big wet hug, she reaches for a watch, counts down from five to one like Brian Nankervis on
Rockwiz and suddenly it’s all over. Pray God they realise they’re really no good for each other for sure and certain, but you don’t even get to find that out.
Hillhouse and English can only respond to the challenge with mannerisms and bluster, and there’s little director Marcelle Schmitz can do to rescue her actors. Faced with this silly and inconsequential soap opera, and the mountain of dialogue that shoves it along, it’s hard to blame them.

This review was written with Lesley Zampatti. For a diametrically opposed take on Ninety, link here to Mark Naglazas’s review in The West Australian today.

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