Review: A Mile in her Shadow ~ theatre notes

Friday, December 08, 2006

Review: A Mile in her Shadow

A Mile in her Shadow by Robert Reid, directed by Aidan Fennessy. Design by Anna Cordingley, lighting design by Matt Scott, original music and sound design Kelly Ryall. With Ben Harkin and Katie-Jean Harding. The Store Room Theatre Workshop until December 10.

The Store Room has an enviable history of premiering excellent independent theatre - Construction of the Human Heart and The Yellow Wallpaper, among the best work on at the Malthouse this year, began here. Recently it proposed a fascinating new initiative, the Store Room Theatre Workshop, which asks theatregoers to subscribe to a notion of works in progress rather than a series of programmed product. To this end, artistic director Ben Harkin has collected a rather stellar group of theatre artists to develop work together over a three year period.

Each season, the Store Room plans to announce a series of works which will be put into development, some of which will go into production. This seems to be a flexible structure that permits artists to work seriously on projects without the pressures of programming work that isn't necessarily ready for it, while at the same time having the chance to try them out on a public stage.

A Mile in her Shadow is the first production from the Store Room Theatre Workshop, and it certainly bears out its creative promise. Robert Reid is a Melbourne writer of unruly but real talent, and here he attempts something very difficult: to create a theatrical analogue of the subjective state of mental illness; in this case, dissociative disorder.

Here comparisons become inevitable. It is impossible to watch this play and not to think of Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, to my mind the most brilliant of this brilliant writer's works. Reid doesn't possess Kane's faultless ear, the tough poetic that permits her to examine such a rawly subjective state as mental illness through the focus of fiercely disciplined language. Kane is both more extreme and more restrained than Reid.

That said, and given that it's no disgrace not to be as good as Sarah Kane, Reid has made a pretty good fist of it here. There is no moment of this play that slackens into the merely confessional, and despite moments of over-writing, it balances finely between the aesthetic demands of a work of art and the raw expression of the sheer terror and confusion of disordered mental states. It's well structured, effectively using repetition to destabilise its various realities, and shifts ingeniously between differing states of mental being.

True (Ben Harkin) is, in all senses of the word, the subject of this play, and we watch him play out his relationships with the Other, represented by She (Katie-Jean Harding). While True is always himself, She is many people - True's lover, his psychiatrist, strangers. True's distress and terror is played against his sometimes bewildering and cruel behaviour towards She, and his world, in which nothing is stable enough to be confidently called "reality", is compellingly evoked.

What makes A Mile in her Shadow so deeply interesting is the close knit between the text and all aspects of its production. Aidan Fennessy has given the production a stylised edge which at its best moments throws the molten emotional core of its subject into sharp relief. Anna Cordingley's design is both clever and beautiful. We witness the play through a curtain, drawn around the two sides of the L-shaped stage: when we enter it is black, but when action is lit behind it, it becomes as transparent as a scrim, alienating us subtly from the action on stage. In such a small theatre, this is particularly effective.

The set itself is an upside-down room of unrelieved squalor: on the ceiling are a mattress, a blanket, rubbish, a collection of empty bottles. On the floor are two chairs. The room at the back of the set, usually off-stage, is drawn surprisingly into the design by the ingenious use of a mirror. The whole is sumptuously lit by Matt Scott with a startling depth of sensual colour.

It's physically demanding of both actors. Harkin negotiates the extremities of his character with utter commitment and an ability to move precisely between contrasting states of mind, although there were moments when I thought a cool restraint might have been more effective than than reaching for emotional extremity, which risked being histrionic.

As all the "other" characters, Katie-Jean Harding distorts her willowy body with the grace of a dancer, creating a physical language that is dislocating and disturbing, although sometimes her vocal skills don't quite match her physical capacities: where Harkin was in danger of over-reaching, Harding's coolness could sometimes slip into mere blankness.

The text is presented almost like an aria or a musical poem, with Kelly Ryall's textured score of original music and sound punctuating the spoken language. It complements the action beautifully, except at times when it is simply too loud, and obtrudes over the words rather than bringing them to a fuller life.

A Mile in her Shadow is a compelling, if not entirely successful, production, which shows what can happen when artists are given the room to experiment. It bodes extremely well for the Store Room's future as a generator of independent theatre. The only real criticism is the shortness of the season, although perhaps there will be a chance for this production to return again, polished by the experience of this first presentation.

Picture: Ben Harkin and Katie-Jean Harding in A Mile in her Shadow.

The Store Room

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