Venue: Seymour Centre (Chippendale NSW), Jan 22 – 30, 2022
Playwright: Tom Holloway (based on the novel by Heather Rose)
Director: Timothy Jones
Cast: Justin Amankwah, Julian Garner, Harriet Gordon-Anderson, Sophie Gregg, Glenn Hazeldine, Aileen Huynh, Tara Morice, Jennifer Rani
Images by Ten Alphas
It is 2010 in New York City, and legendary performance artist Marina Abramović is presenting her work of endurance The Artist is Present, in which she sits face to face with random gallery visitors, for a total of over 700 hours, across three months. In Tom Holloway’s play The Museum of Modern Love (based on Heather Rose’s novel), we meet several people in attendance at Abramović’s exhibition, and catch glimpses of their most intimate selves, in what may be considered a snapshot of the people we are, in this moment, in the middle classes of the Western world.
It may be a touch narcissistic to say that these representations of us on stage, are fascinating and surprisingly likeable. In The Museum of Modern Love, we appear to be nice people, full of vulnerability yet passionate, and even at our worst, we seem to always operate from the best of intentions. The writers do not fear the darker parts of being, but all their depictions come with a fundamental sense of hopefulness, that makes the work an ultimately uplifting one.
Directed by Timothy Jones, the production is elegantly rendered, with perhaps a little too much restraint applied onto the expressions of these very human stories. There is a cool and distanced approach to the storytelling (that feels so much like a visit to any modern art museum), but although detached, there are scenes that will certainly resonate, even if their touch can feel too gentle.
The stage is designed by Stephen Curtis, who very effectively recreates the severe and chilly ambience of conventional museums, with plain colours and straight lines. Alexander Berlage’s lights give enhancement to that astringent aura, but also softens at crucial points to draw attention to the inevitable sentimentality of these human explorations. Costumes by Veronique Bennett look to be appropriately American, principally functional whilst endeavouring to be subtly stylish. David Bergman’s work on sound and video, elevates the production in a manner that helps to disarm the audience, so that we may respond with emotions rather than rationale, as if a reminder that the experience of life, is never only about logic.
Eight performers are positioned on stage for the entirety, including Julian Garner whose Arky opens and closes the show, and therefore seems to be somewhat the centre of proceedings. Garner introduces a captivating volatility, that makes believable his character’s confounding behaviour. The remarkably committed Harriet Gordon-Anderson and Tara Morice play his daughter and wife respectively, with Morice’s enigmatic presence leaving a particularly strong impression. Sophie Gregg and Aileen Huynh too are memorable, for the vibrancy they deliver each time they occupy centre stage. Justin Amankwah, Glenn Hazeldine and Jennifer Rani bring idiosyncrasies that make The Museum of Modern Love feel intensely truthful, as a kind of testimony about our emotional lives in the early parts of this troubled century.
At MoMA, Abramović was resolutely present, but the intimacy she had tried to embody, can over time, appear contrived. In The Museum of Modern Love, Arky and others are hardly present with their loved ones, but it is that portrayal of absence that makes us understand intimacy. To put forward the case that we are essentially masochistic, is not such an overwrought stratagem. It seems that it is our nature to value things the most, only when we have lost possession of them. It is no wonder then, that we do so much that is determined to put happiness in jeopardy.