Review: Ladies Day (Griffin Theatre Company)

griffinVenue: SBW Stables Theatre (Kings Cross NSW), Feb 5 – Mar 26, 2016
Playwright: Alana Valentine
Director: Darren Yap
Cast: Matthew Backer, Wade Briggs, Lucia Mastrantone, Elan Zavelsky
Image by Brett Boardman

Theatre review
It is not a promising start to the play. There is a lot of old-fashioned talk about “how gays have different lives from straights”, “how many shades of gay are there”, and “look, there’s a gay man enjoying himself in a dress in a country town”. We are reminded that Priscilla happened 22 years ago and that things have thankfully moved on a considerable amount. Alana Valentine’s Ladies Day does however, take a turn for the better when its central concern begins to take shape. Sexual assault is a tricky subject for art because it can seem to lack complexity, and making work about the topic can often feel somewhat obvious, as if preaching to the choir, but Valentine’s script finds surprising nuance, and provides new insight to help us gain a deeper understanding of the victim’s experience. The structure of the play can be further refined, but there are strong elements to be found. For every scene that feels excessively derivative, we discover riveting moments in later sections where its superficial conceits are shed to reveal the devastating honesty that lies beneath.

Darren Yap’s direction gives the production an enjoyable texture with sensitive and regular transformations in atmosphere, and its amplified emotions make for a compelling dynamic range that keeps us attentive. Sound and music by Max Lambert and Roger Lock add great drama to the piece, and quirky interludes of song give the show its character. All four actors contribute powerful performances, with Lucia Mastrantone’s incredible vulnerability leaving the greatest impression. Through her depiction of suffering, we observe that it is often the strength that emerges from pain that is truly moving. Mastrantone is passionate, articulate but also subtle, elevating her relatively simple roles into something altogether more substantial. Similarly compelling is Elan Zavelsky as the sad and bitter Rodney, with a quiet intensity and meaningful introspection that keeps us captivated. Strangely miscast as a man past his prime, the clearly attractive and youthful Zavelsky’s depiction of desperation is nevertheless committed and very accurate.

It might not be very elegant at Ladies Day, but its concluding moral is a surprising, sobering one. At the theatre, we tell the truth through fabrications because our minds can prefer them over facts. We are receptive to stories if they are told well, regardless of how veracities are achieved. From the storyteller perspective too, it is often through analogy and metaphor that truths can be better portrayed, especially when actualities evade expression. Facts are hard to capture, but our humanity can hear the truth ringing no matter what guise it takes.