A Single Act ~ theatre notes

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Single Act

A Single Act by Jane Bodie, directed by Julian Meyrick. Design Louise McCarthy, lighting Ben Cobham, composer Darrin Verhagen. With Anita Hegh, Neil Pigot, Travis McMahon and Tanya Burne. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Beckett Theatre, Malthouse until June 10.

For once, I find myself applauding the MTC's programming policy. A Single Act is the first in a studio season of new writers, "Young Turks, vibey up-and-coming writers we predict will be the future of Australian theatre writing," as artistic director Simon Phillips has it. And I think in this instance they've got it right: Bodie is an impressive talent.

Perhaps as an indice of the MTC's nervousness about how this play will be received by its subscribers, this production comes well-studded with cautions: "A contemporary play with frequent strong language, nudity, a simulated sex scene, adult themes and acts of violence. Please note there is smoking on stage and strobe lighting effects used. A live rabbit features on stage; Animal Welfare and RSPCA guidelines are being observed." Prepare for a wild ride, aesthetes.

Frankly, it's not especially shocking: A Single Act isn't nearly as out-there as the Malthouse's A View of Concrete, currently playing upstairs in The Tower, which also addresses the impact of terrorism on personal lives. Yet I think A Single Act is the superior play, a coolly intelligent work by a writer very aware of her form and of what she wants to do with it. Sadly, it's not served well by this production, which almost obscures its subtle power.

A Single Act follows the relationships between two couples, Scott (Travis McMahon) and Michelle (Tanya Burne), and Neil (Neil Pigot) and Clea (Anita Hegh), after an unspecified but devastating urban terrorist attack clearly based on September 11. At the beginning of the play, Neil and Clea return home, shaken to the core, each desperately relieved to find the other alive. Scott and Michelle are shown a year later, at what is clearly the end of their relationship, when Michelle finally gathers the strength to leave an abusive Scott.

We watch Clea and Neil's relationship disintegrate, as they crumble before their inability to help each other. Neil is the one who most visibly falls apart, unable to deal with the void of grief that the terrorist attack has opened within him: he withdraws from his life, driven to aimless walks and relationships with strangers which now seem more meaningful to him than his marriage. Clea, on the other hand, flounders through grinding loneliness, attempting to continue an ordinary life by repeating the gestures of relationship, which become emptier and emptier as the gaps between them widen.

Threaded between these painful scenes of estrangement is the story of Scott and Michelle, which moves backwards towards its beginning on the day of the terrorist attack. In the first scene, Scott brings home a pet for Michelle, a rabbit, which she rejects: it isn't what she wants now, it was something she wanted when she was seven. Scott infantalises her as a means to control her; when that doesn't work, he beats her. But now she is, at last, deciding to leave him, to follow through on "a single act of defiance".

Behind Scott's behaviour is fear: fear of rejection, fear of lonelieness, fear of failure, but mainly just fear itself. And fear also drives Michelle's behaviour: not, as might seem obvious, fear of her lover, but of being in the world. Right in the beginning of their relationship, she hands the power over to Scott: and that abrogation of responsibility for herself leads her into the abusive relationship. The terrible secret is that the relationship would not exist without her collusion, if somehow Scott's abuse and control didn't fulfil a deep need within her. And this shift from confident working woman to will-less victim occurs precisely on the day of the terror attack.

Bodie is a writer of considerable subtletly and formal elegance, and she records these shifts of relationship through dialogue that exposes the viscera of human relationships with the economy and delicacy of a scalpel. She has clearly read, and what's more, learned from Harold Pinter, most tellingly in the oblique precision of her dialogue. The backwards movement of Scott and Michelle's story also nods towards Pinter's Betrayal, in which the story of a relationship moves from its end to its beginning.

Julian Meyrick's overdressed production muffles Bodie's (admittedly challenging) clarities. It features a rather ugly set - curved wooden ribs represent a house, behind which flicker three television screens set in a wall that is partly a green screen and partly naked bricks. It has several playing areas at different levels, lit by lamps as well as theatre lights. The design ought to be interesting, but it remains unresolved and fragmented.

The modular furniture needs to be rearranged by the actors between nearly every scene, making the emotional orchestration of the play subordinate to the demands of the set. This effectively clogs the action, making the play feel much slower than the writing or performances seem to warrant; and also any delicacies between scenes, contrasts or similarities between the unfolding relationships, are muted or effectively lost.

Although there is little to complain about in the individual peformances, which are each skilled and committed, there is something a little crude in the characterisation. This seems more a problem in the direction than in the acting, a question of general approach. I felt that, despite the complexities of the script, everyone was presented as a "type": Scott as a working class brute or buffoon, Michelle a victim, Neil a traumatised nutcase and Clea a stressed professional woman.

This tendency towards stereotype and its subsequent muddying of emotional clarities may account for some longueurs in the middle of the evening which are not, on reflection, problems in the writing. It's hard to be sure, of course, without reading the play: but it seems to me that, as in the relationships portrayed on stage, crucial connections aren't happening, and an elusive, vital charge is missing from the production.

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