Review: The Matilda Waltz (New Theatre)

newtheatreVenue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), Sep 19 – 27, 2014
Director: Sam Thomas
Playwright: Deborah Mulhall
Cast: James Bean, Adrian Adam, Carla Nirella, Morgan Powell, Michael Sutherland, Sonja Donohoe, Adam Gray, Katrina Rautenberg, Roberto Zenca

Theatre review
The Matilda Waltz is the story of five generations of women in Australia, commencing with siblings Vera and Ida Templeton in 1894. We follow a series of their love lives, which all result in daughters being born (yes, they are all heterosexual and, spoiler alert, they all choose Caucasian husbands). The play is narrated by icons of Australian-European literature and fine art, Banjo Paterson and Russel Drysdale, but it is unclear how much of the piece is a work of fiction. The women are not weak characters, they all have purpose and some even display ambition, but Deborah Mulhall’s writing defines each of them against the men who they chance upon. Romance and reproduction is big with the Templeton ladies, it seems, but in the space of a hundred years, they do not come in contact with any indigenous characters or later migrants from non-European regions. We do however, see one of the women venture into “Nam” to almost get killed by the Viet Cong.

It can be frustrating watching actors play different roles and not realising that fact until several scenes later. Chronology in much of the first half is also unclear. Sam Thomas’ direction is not without flair, but important details are neglected, which makes for a confusing experience. Fortunately, there is good work to be found in the revelation of each narrative that unfolds. Characters are not explored with much depth (the play is abridged for the Sydney Fringe schedule), but they are interesting and quite colourful. Virtually every scene features two characters in dialogue, and Thomas creates good chemistry on the stage between all cast members.

The actors are attractive and committed, but the script does not offer them enough to exhibit great skill or talent. The young men of the cast are utilised like boxed up Ken dolls, all gorgeous to look at but without space to flex their acting muscles. We only get to see powerful emotions from a couple of the women but those moments are so fleeting, they seem almost frivolous. Carla Nirella is animated and humorous as the uptight Ida, providing some laughs in the early sequences. Also charming is Sonja Donohoe who manages to find some range and subtlety in her scenes. Adrian Adam plays Drysdale and the American diplomat Richard with a confident presence, and he works hard to bring some fire to the production.

Encapsulating a century into 70 minutes is challenging. To create short stories out of entire lifetimes is not meaningless, but requires greater imagination and innovation. Australia’s recorded history is by some accounts, the longest in the world and we have much to choose from, and our persistent obsession with the recent European settlement needs to subside.