Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Nov 6 – Dec 7, 2013
Playwright: John Doyle
Director: Sarah Goodes
Actors: Paul Blackwell, Matilda Bailey, Matthew Gregan, Ksenja Logos, Rebecca Massey, Geoff Morrell, Yalin Ozucelik
This is a story about a highly regarded physicist, Vere, who falls victim to Parkinson’s disease. Vere has built a life based on science and intellect, but is now faced with the cruel obliteration of his mental capacities by dementia. John Doyle’s play explores the remains of a life, as its subject goes through a metamorphosis so exhaustive and fundamental. In Vere’s disintegration, we see the curious way in which memory functions, and from it, we gain an appreciation of what is immortal and invaluable. Themes of love, relationships, religion, work, mortality, and the transience of life itself, are meaningfully woven along with humour and pathos to create a show that is simultaneously entertaining and profound.
The first half is set in a university before Vere’s disorder takes effect, and the second, at his home when it is in full swing. The show speaks at first to our minds, with exuberant and witty repartee among cerebral academics, then to our hearts, as family dynamics come into play with decidedly greater sentimentality. It is as though Vere’s illness can wipe out the contents and function of the brain, but the soul is unbreakable and eternal. Director Sarah Goode’s work is quiet, and not particularly showy, but her hand is a confident one. She understands the strengths of the script, and ensures those strengths shine through with minimal intrusion.
Design elements are excellent, if a little conservative. The production is demanding of the actors, who (aside from the lead) each play two sets of characters, and they rise to the challenge beautifully. Geoff Morrell’s flamboyant style ensures that his characters are memorable, and his vivacity is a welcome addition to any event. Rebecca Massey portrays an unintelligent character with brilliant irony and meticulous timing. She delivers many laughs with a camp sensibility but is careful to retain a level of realism and believability.
Paul Blackwell’s performance is sublime. His presence is remarkable and the audience falls for his Vere from the very first words. He fascinates us, and we are completely enthralled, like putty in his hands. Blackwell’s biggest success is the ability to elicit great empathy while depicting a very sick man with utmost dignity. Through him, we see the humour in our fragility, but that frailty he depicts is also deeply touching. Blackwell, and Vere, guide us through a poignant meditation on growing old, on lost love, and on death, and we conclude at a place that is, surprisingly, not very frightening at all.