The Lightkeeper ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

The Lightkeeper

The Lightkeeper by Verity Laughton, directed by Teresa Bell, with Ian Scott. La Mama Theatre, Carlton.

Comparisons, said George Herbert, are odious; but sometimes, like US foreign policy, comparisons are thrust upon us. It's been quite interesting seeing two dramatic monologues in as many weeks, The Lightkeeper by Verity Laughton, now on at La Mama, and an MTC production of Tom Scott's The Daylight Atheist.

It may seem unfair to so directly compare shows, one of which is presented with all the slick resources of the biggest theatre company in the southern hemisphere, while the other is in the humbler (but equally eminent) environs of the tiny La Mama theatre. Tom Scott's play has come from a series of hit seasons in New Zealand, while Verity Laughton's has had a single season at Mainstreet Theatre in Adelaide. These are obvious imbalances, but on the other hand there is a kind of democracy in theatre: a performance mounted with no money, but with excellent actors and text, will trump a lavishly presented but artistically impoverished production every time.

As I said in my review of The Daylight Atheist, dramatic monologue is one of the most challenging of theatrical forms. More than any other kind of theatre, it exposes the actor and text. Bumps which might be glossed over in other kinds of plays are much harder to hide. And so, while The Lightkeeper is by no means a bad play, I couldn't help thinking about the kinds of sharp wit, emotional force and theatrical invention that animated Tom Scott's work. Laughton's text lacks Tom Scott's imaginative suppleness; strangely, given its undeniable theatricality and its status as fiction, it is limited by a sense of literalness. It's not that there's anything wrong with the play; it's a perfectly respectable, if conservative, piece of work. It's more that it lacks an anarchic spark, some imaginative gravel in the works, to lift it further beyond the sentimental nostalgia which, as it is, it only narrowly escapes.

Laughton's play is set in the mid-19th century, and tells the story of Jack Power, a former sailor turned lighthouse keeper. During the ninety or so minutes Jack, in what I suppose is the "office" of his lighthouse, relates several nautical adventures, expatiates on his work, does some whittling, keeps track of the weather, and sings snatches of sea shanties. He also tells of his marriage to Mary-Agnes - the narrative spine of the monologue. She is a widow of "education", and their meeting and marriage unfolds as a love story which extends to the delicate development of a relationship with her small son. I knew early that it would all end badly, so I hope it's not really a spoiler to say so. Despite tragedy, however, Jack, whose life has been pretty grim and certainly free of domesticity up until his marriage, continues with his work, stoically reflecting that the little happiness he has enjoyed is better than none at all.

The problem all through the production is a lack of theatrical imagination; it is as if everything has been realised to a first stage, and then stopped. Laughton is lucky to have an actor of Ian Scott's calibre to perform her text. He looks so convincingly nautical that I was taken aback; a beard and a cap, and he could be spinning yarns in any home for retired seamen. He performs well and feelingly, but I felt constantly that he was limited by both the text, which can't quite reach the lyrical or emotional heights it aims for, and Teresa Bell's rather fussy direction. While Ian Scott is always present and never boring to watch, he is capable of much more than he shows here.

Steve Jankowicz's set - the curved half-wall of a lighthouse - is an interesting concept, framing even further the small space within La Mama. But, like the soundscape - storm noises when there was a storm, magpie calls for morning, carnival sounds when Jack remembers a carnival - it remains in the realm of the merely literal, details picked to reinforce naturalism rather than the imaginative reality of theatre. God is in the details, for sure, but the art is in picking the right ones.

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