Review: Radiance (Belvoir St Theatre)

belvoirVenue: Belvoir St Theatre (Surry Hills NSW), Jan 3 – Feb 8, 2015
Playwright: Louis Nowra
Director: Leah Purcell
Cast: Leah Purcell, Shari Sebbens, Miranda Tapsell
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Our relationships with parents may not all be bad, but they are certainly complex. Louis Nowra’s Radiance offers a look at the way one woman’s human errors reverberate for generations after, and accordingly, we observe the inevitable karmic inheritance from predecessors. Cressy, Mae and Nona are three sisters who have reunited in North Queensland for their mother’s funeral. Their personalities are vastly different, and there is no shortage of friction as they navigate their rare time together in the old house where they had grown up. Nowra’s script is dramatic and sensual, with an aggressive but beautiful energy that surprises in a milieu that is frequently dark and plagued with anxiety.

Leah Purcell’s direction suffers from her additional responsibilities as actor in the role of Cressy. The play is uneven, with group dynamics feeling lacklustre even though the portrayal of closeness between the women is successful. Their interchanges are believable but come across oddly tame, notwithstanding some quite sensational themes. There is an understated elegance to the piece, but it is needlessly subdued, with many missed opportunities for bigger laughs and more heightened drama. It is noteworthy however, that Purcell is able to find authenticity in the writing, and the emotions of the text are adequately played out so that we feel in touch with the essence of the narrative, despite the scarcity of a sense of theatricality.

As actor, Purcell is never convincing as an opera diva who has found success overseas, and her overly restrained interpretation not only does little to embody class, it also detracts from some of the more flamboyant sections of the play. Fortunately, Purcell’s ability to deliver gravity in key revelatory moments holds our attention, and she gives the plot an enjoyable coherence. Middle child Mae is played by Shari Sebbens whose presence is noticeably weaker than her counterparts’. Her work is focused and strong, but her depiction of seriousness can read a little dreary, and consequently, her character becomes too distant. On the other hand, the youngest role of Nona is engagingly and empathetically performed by Miranda Tapsell, who connects with us from her very first entrance. The vibrancy she introduces to her scenes is remarkable, if only that energy is sustained by the other players. Tapsell has an easy confidence that keeps us on her side, and the compassion she brings to her character allows us to believe the extraordinary circumstances we witness unfolding.

Sound design by Brendan O’Brien is thorough and thoughtful, adding a dimension to the show that facilitates the articulation of a complicated and deep emotional universe. Dale Ferguson’s set is sophisticatedly beautiful, but his design forces a substantial portion of the play to be performed quite far upstage, prohibiting us from getting more involved.

Louis Nowra’s script is undeniably rich and seductive. It deals with familiar difficulties of real life, but the world it inhabits is almost exotic. Radiance uncovers a wildness that exists in our own homes, one that hides in plain sight yet begs to be examined. Secrets are associated with shame, but it is the abandonment of shame that will ultimately set us free.

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