Review: Half Life ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Review: Half Life

Melbourne Festival #2

Half Life by John Mighton, directed by Daniel Brooks. Design by Dany Lyne, lighting by Andrea Lundy. With Richard Clarkin, Laura de Carteret, Barbara Gordon, Carolyn Hetherington, Maggie Huculak, Robert Perichini and Eric Peterson. Playhouse Theatre, Arts Centre, until October 15.

Half Life is, to say the least, a puzzling inclusion in the Melbourne Festival program. Although it occurred to me that it might have been imported all the way from Canada to make our own theatre look like genius.

Not that there's anything especially wrong with John Mighton’s play that the brusque excision of a couple of superfluous expository scenes might have amended. Even if it’s slight, it’s an intelligent and perhaps – it was hard to tell – felt exploration of the nature of aging, memory and love.

Set in an old people’s home, the story follows two abortive romances, one between the residents Clara (Carolyn Hetherington) and Patrick (Eric Peterson) and one between their children, Donald (Richard Clarkin) and Anna (Laura de Carteret).

Clara is suffering from senile dementia, but she and Patrick fall in love, a relationship that especially troubles Clara’s son, a scientist whose work is mainly concerned with Artificial Intelligence, and who, like Anna, is recovering from divorce.

Mighton’s script is generally a light-handed look at the infantalisation of our aged population, and pleasing poetic echoes run through its unobtrusive naturalism. However, what life it might have had is trampled by direction that pays little attention to the nuance of its dramatic rhythms. It makes a heavy-going 90 minutes of a play that could have been a sprightly hour.

Director Daniel Brooks had the bright idea of introducing blackouts between every scene, blackouts accompanied by a variety of sound effects and the swift shifting of stage furniture.

This was all right for the first half hour or so. By the final half hour, the rhythm had become so mind-numbingly predictable that I was having trouble staying awake. I began to think stern thoughts about the speed of light – surely some scenes could have tripped over each other’s heels to considerable profit?

The direction also makes it hard to judge the performances, which are on the whole surprisingly wooden. The three older actors – Hetherington, Peterson and Barbara Gordon as the grumpy resident Agnes – inject a little sparkle, but the rest err on the side of competence.

The real star of the show is Andrea Lundy’s lighting design, a precise geometry of autumnal colours that gives this show a gloss of class it doesn’t fully deserve. Though it’s only fair to add that the mainly grey-haired matinee audience with whom I saw Half Life seemed much more awake to its charms than I was.

Picture: L to R: Eric Peterson, Carolyn Hetherington, Magg
Linkie Huculak, Laura de Carteret, Robert Persichini and Barbara Gordon in Half Life. Photo: Tony Hauser

This review appears in today's Australian.


On Stage And Walls said...

Funny, I thought it was supurb (thinking back to David Williamson's dreadful tratment of a similar theme in "After the Ball") even more I though it being imported for the festival made our theatre look like dreck in comparison. The performances were subtle, I thought, and the scenes between Donald and the Pastor have a Shavian feel in the way they aruee the existance or non-existance of God. Mpstly I found though the abscence of overacting, talking straight at the audience and emphasising every line in case it might be important that I so often sense in, say, an average MTC performnce a relief.

Anonymous said...

My only quibble with Alison's review is that I didn't much like the lighting either. It was too muted for my taste. In fact I think I would've renamed the show Half Light. (Of course my eyes are going so maybe the subtlety of the lighting design was lost on me.)

This show has had rave reviews overseas and while I think the play has merit, the production left me scratching my head.

As for making local theatre look like dreck, the last two shows I saw were "Mercury Fur" and Adam Cass' fringe show "I love you bro". "Half Life" looked tired and creaky by comparison.

On Stage And Walls said...

I should qualify the statement, that "Half Life" makes shows of a similar nature done here look like dreck. I agree, the lighting felt strange, I wonder if the play is normally given in smaller venues where it would have registered better.
Still, many people were moved by "Half Life" the night I saw it.

Anonymous said...

I quite liked it, though that may be partly because of the contrast with what I saw the day before, viz., "This Show is About People". I thought the text for that consisted largely of dreary, hackneyed pseudo-profundity. There were many things I liked about it (dance, music, singing, etc) but the text certainly wasn't one of them. So I think I was hungry for something that had an intelligent script that was of some interest to me, and I didn't really care that the production was low-key and not striking. Because of the plethora of stuff (including films, etc) with the "old people are really people too, indeed they're grown ups!!" theme, its getting harder and harder to find things along those lines that don't strike me as overly cliched but I thought "Half Life" managed to do quite well on that score.

Anonymous said...

This grey-haired-at-heart matinee audience member was certainly awake to its charms. I didn't tire of the grey-outs... Why? Because the actors moved so damn well. I can't think of a bunch of actors who move as beautifully. I loved the slo-mo and the evocative soundscaping.

Now, as a sometime pioneer of AI (I exaggerate... slightly!) I thought the neural net stuff was a bit perfunctory. Still, it did get me thinking Peter Singer-style thoughts about diminished capacity and what, precisely, makes life valuable?

I thought this was a terrific piece of middlebrow theatre. And, damnit, I wish that someone had invited BoltA along to see it. (Like Peepshow , last year.)

Unknown said...

you think andy b would have enjoyed 'Peepshow', chris?

Alison Croggon said...

Mr Bolt might well have enjoyed Half Life. (Peep Show is another question, I think, quite probably a bit dicey, what with all that sex.) Half Life certainly is inoffensive. Sorry guys, but it just bored me to catatonia. I didn't think it entirely without virtue (as I said in the review) but that kind of direction does nothing for me at all. Putting everything in frames.

I don't get what you're saying about movement, Chris. Yes, they got on and off stage... I saw Peter Brook's production of Athol Fugard last night. (Are you seeing that? I presume you are). Now, that's moving on a stage.

Anonymous said...

From memory there were bits of "Peepshow" that had a kind of Seinfeld feel to it, e.g., the style in which observations were made about relationships, etc. Maybe AndyB would have enjoyed some of that. Then again, maybe even Seinfeld is too racy for Andy

On Stage And Walls said...

It being a 'terrific piece of middlebrow theatre' is really important - Middle-aged, middle-brow (and yes, middle class) theatregoers are the ones generate the most money for theatre companies. I'd rather watch a year's worth of plays are well structured as "Half-Life" than mish-mashes of soap opera sentiment acted in a style closer to semaphore ("Glass Soldier" anyone?).

The control of movement was as obvious and effective as a ballet. In the opening scene the stillness of Donald and Anna's conversation was broken by the rush on and off by Nurse Tammy. Then in the next scene the slowness of the three oldies playing that word game pulled Nurse Tammy into the tempo and it flowed into the next scene with Patrick and Claire having their first conversation. It was so polished. The movement reflected the mood. It was putting over as much if not more than the text.

Alison Croggon said...

I can quite see the importance of appealing to a variety of taste. And, let's face it, theatre is for the most part a middle class activity (I am irredeemably middle class myself), and the middle class comprehends a broad range of taste.

But, you know, if you're talking middlebrow (a dubious division at best) I'd much rather spend my night at the rather livelier Ying Tong, that STC show the MTC brought down in July, which is surely as middlebrow as it gets. What does middlebrow mean, exactly? Does Daniel Kitson qualify as middlebrow? (I'm fiercely resisting quoting Hilaire Belloc at the moment). Or, for a straight production of a brilliant play, that tiny company I saw in Adelaide a couple of weeks ago beat this one hollow for thoughtfulness and class.

On Stage And Walls said...

Yeah, Ying-Tong was very 'middle-brow' and lively. Half-Life was middle-brow and sentimental (I wish Quentin Crisp were alive to define it terms of popular theatre - ever read his collections of movie reviews?), whereas, what was it 'Japanese dancers dancing around a bored cow' and things selected by lesbians is decidedly not middle brow (I'm still getting a laugh out of that article, he's like Kenny Everett's 'Angry of Mayfair')

Anonymous said...

I can't remember where this came from, but I find it useful as a starting point to discussing these things;

• Interest in creative process and symbolism
• Preference for experimentation
• Introspection preferred to action
• Accepts different levels of meaning
• Expects consideration of philosophical, psychological and social issues

Upper middlebrow
• A less literary verbal culture
• Figurative and narrative art preferred, especially if illustrative of individual achievement or upward mobility
• Enjoys nineteenth-century art and opera, but not early music or contemporary art

Lower middlebrow
• Form must unambiguously express meaning
• Demands conclusions
• Unresolvable conflicts not made explicit
• Interested in performers, not writers or directors
• Influenced by word-of-mouth judgement

• No concern with abstract ideas: form must be entirely subservient to content
• Demands crude morality with dramatic demarcations, but usually limited to family or individual problems
• Performer is paramount: enjoys vicarious contact with ’stars’
• Considers ornateness attractive

Anonymous said...

Sorry, found it, the above was from Gans (1974) via Stephen Bayley (1991)

Tom Wright

Anonymous said...

Don't forget Monobrow.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Tom - that fairly comprehensively addresses the question! Though all those brows give me a bit of an ache in my forehead. But you know, it would make Half Life a cross between high and upper middle brow.

On Stage And Walls said...

Or perhaps somewhere on the border of zone one and zone two?