Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Jun 3 – 28, 2014
Playwright: Christopher Durang
Director: Melita Rowston
Actors: Peter Astridge, Romy Bartz, Ryan Gibson, Terry Karabelas, Alice Livingstone, Ainslie McGlynn, Annie Schofield
Photograph © Bob Seary
With a title as provocative and powerful as this, the play’s central concept hangs over everything that unfolds. We evaluate every situation, trying to decide what our personal definitions of “torture” might be, in relation to the statements that the writer makes. It is not a passive experience, sitting in the darkness of this theatre. The script seeks to involve and implicate us in its world. We look at its characters and wonder how we fit in, or indeed how the stories fit into our lives.
The production however, struggles to connect with us. The players are in their own world, always at a distance, and while there is a consistent semblance of poignancy and performances are all polished and precise, there is an uncomfortable inaccessibility that makes engagement difficult. Melita Rowston’s direction is wonderfully heightened and outlandish, but its strict structure seems to restrict her actors from playing with audience reactions and from using our presence as extensively as a comedy of this nature should. Nevertheless, Rowston’s work is suitably subversive in vision, and the courage at which she tackles the play’s difficult subjects is noteworthy.
Set design by Sasha Perri and Clarisse Ambroselli is imaginative and efficient. The action takes place in almost ten different places, and great lengths are taken to make every setting convincing and evocative. The play goes through many scene changes, and each transition is managed with elegance. From a production values perspective, the show scores very well.
Standouts in the cast include Peter Astridge, who plays Leonard, an extreme right winger of the nutty and violent variety. Astridge’s confident absurdity is refreshing and seductive. The caricatured roles are not written with much range or variance, but Astridge manages to find nuances to create a sense of dimension and unpredictability. Romy Bartz as Hildegarde plays up to the wildness in Christopher Durang’s comedy and delivers several big laughs. There are no weak performances in the show, and all roles are cast well. The script seems to require its players to portray the duality of character and actor, and although some effort is put into creating a sense of “metatheatricality”, a more conventional approach is usually chosen. Immersed within their roles, they miss opportunities for a more post-modern style of commentary on the situations being depicted.
A play that examines our moral compasses with torture and terror, should never leave us cool, or cosy. Its elements of controversy and iconoclasm should take precedence, and their disruptive nature should spawn discomfort, or disquiet. The play shows itself thinking things through; it is concerned with the use of intelligence, and it wishes to be challenging. The edge of the envelope can be pushed further.