Review: Minus One Sister (Stories Like These)

storiesliketheseVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Sep 9 – Oct 3, 2015
Playwright: Anna Barnes
Director: Luke Rogers
Cast: Kate Cheel, Lucy Heffernan, Liam Nunan, Contessa Treffone
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
Unlike Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac that did not eventuate, Agamemnon killed his daughter Iphegenia to appease the goddess Artemis, in order that the lives of many others could be saved. In Anna Barnes’ retelling of the ancient tale, place becomes Australia and the time is now. Her poetic language borrows from Greek theatrical traditions and combines it with the speech of today, for a fascinating and modern take on the dramatic form. Early passages are slow-moving, with repetitions that do not seem to serve a clear enough purpose, but when the blood-letting begins, Minus One Sister takes on the intense energy of a classic tragedy. Transposing the story to a contemporary context involves a hindrance that the play tends to evade. The chain of murders originates at a point of supernaturality, which in Barnes’ version for the twenty-first century, is not entirely reasonable or convincing. Even though her revenge narratives are powerful and full of intrigue, the first transgression occurs with insufficient persuasiveness, and without that foundation, emotional investment in the piece becomes challenging.

Luke Rogers’ direction brings to the stage a wild and decadent destructiveness that is often mesmerising, in the shape of a finely tuned drama that provides many exciting moments. Although the production does not deliver great poignancy, its sensuality resonates effectively, with beautifully crafted tension holding together a show that is full of fragility and volatility. Marvellously designed by the dynamic team of Georgia Hopkins (set and costumes), Sian James-Holland (lights) and Nate Edmondson (sound), we are transfixed and overcome by a sordid world populated by unimaginably dark thoughts and evil plans. The ruin of purity could perhaps be handled with a harsher brutality, but the family’s misery is depicted with a melancholic, almost gothic, sensibility that appeals to our taste for storytelling with an edge of morbidity.

The four young actors make a compelling cast, each with a distinctive presence, and an enthusiasm for agile atmospheric shifts that keeps the show from turning predictable. Contessa Treffone, as Chrysothemis and Clytemnestra, is especially powerful, and impressive with the range of temperaments that she is able to conjure up for her scenes. Tender, resolute or cruel, she is full of conviction and we are consistently drawn to her every surprising expression. Electra, the angry and vengeful sister, is played by Kate Cheel whose ability to portray chilling ruthlessness gives the play a gravity and a foreboding that are essential to its apocalyptic plot trajectory. Cheel’s climatic moment of devastation requires greater passion, but her work is memorable for its intellectual clarity and her flair for sombreness.

Minus One Sister is concerned with the disruption of family and innocence, but its message comes across mildly, in spite of its severe and horrific episodes. There are obvious efforts at making key personalities empathetic, but their experiences do not come close enough to our reality. Nevertheless, the production is a polished and sometimes spectacular one. There is a generous amount of talent on display, and every one of its fabulous facets welcomes our genuine and immediate admiration.