Review: The Winterling, The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Review: The Winterling, The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill

The Winterling by Jez Butterworth, directed by Andrew Gray. Set design by Peter Mumford, lighting design by Stelios Karagiannis, costumes by Naomi Clegg. With Steven Adams, Nicholas Bell, Ella Caldwell, Adrian Mulraney and Martin Sharpe. Red Stitch Actors Theatre until April 19. Bookings: 9533 8082

The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill, directed by Neil Gladwin. With Joseph O'Farrell, Miles O'Neill and Glen Walton. Suitcase Royale @ The Bosco, Federation Square, Comedy Festival, until April 5. Bookings: 1300 660 013

The intimacy of Red Stitch theatre is peculiarly suited to creating claustrophobic spaces. And for its production of The Winterling, designer Peter Mumford has conjured a derelict farmhouse, an eyescape of greys and dun browns that generates a tangible sense of poverty-stricken gloom. What's fascinating about this, however, is that while the space itself is claustrophobic, it calls up a powerful sense of a dark, huge emptiness offstage, inviting your imagination into the harsh, bare landscapes of rural Dartmoor.

It's an evocative visual setting for Jez Butterworth's play, which places the petty and brutal dealings of human beings against a wider natural setting. Here humankind, like nature, is red in tooth and claw, trapped in a remorseless struggle for survival.

It's a play that isn't driven by plot so much as by the imperatives of dialogue; the story is really secondary to the moment-by-moment interactions of the characters. In The Winterling, former hard man West (Nicholas Bell) is hiding out in a remote farmhouse in Dartmoor after he has suffered a nervous breakdown. His former associate Wally (Steven Adams) has driven from London with his stepson, Patsy (Martin Sharpe). During their visit, they encounter two Dartmoor natives, the tramp Draycott (Adrian Mulraney) and Lue (Ella Caldwell), a homeless girl who has holed up at the farmhouse.

Butterworth is a writer who has clearly learnt much from Harold Pinter, especially from his early plays like The Birthday Party and The Caretaker. Like Pinter, his major concern is the relationships between men, and his characters remain largely mysterious: language is not so much a vehicle for communication, as a means of exerting dominance, of establishing territorial rights. Power is a game, and dominance shifts without explanation, sometimes within the space of a line. Again like Pinter, he employs the techniques of surreal interrogation to create a potent sense of menace.

The dialogue - and Andrew Gray's production - are compelling enough to keep your interest throughout the play. And Butterworth is gifted at forging a rich and poetic colloquial speech, especially in the many monologues. But while Butterworth has clearly understood Pinter in the details of dialogue, he doesn't demonstrate a concomitant understanding of larger dramatic structure.

Given the play's linguistic dazzle, The Winterling is puzzlingly clumsy. It is written in three scenes, the middle scene being an unnecessarily explanatory flashback, and draws to a close that supposedly presents a dilemma, but which in fact is too pat, too redolent of a playwright's conscious control of meaning, to resonate with anything but a superficial menace. The larger metaphor of the play ends up being less than the sum of its parts, and consequently Butterworth never crawls out of Pinter's long shadow.

For all that, it's an impressive production, featuring a very strong cast. It's worth seeing for the performances alone, which call up enough neck-prickling moments to justify the price of admission. It's carefully orchestrated, permitting the actors to negotiate those razor-sharp shifts of power with total commitment. I enjoyed all the performances, but a monologue of Adrian Mulraney's involving a real sheep's heart cooked off-stage (where the director invokes the audience's sense of smell) and a rapid-fire dialogue between Bell and Sharpe were standouts.

I'VE FOLLOWED Suitcase Royale since I was enchanted in a Fitzroy back room in by their first show, Felix Listens to the World. They moved on from that irresistible piece of whimsy to the black surrealism of Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon. The Ghosts of Ricketts Hill is their third piece, directed - if indeed this anarchic lot can be directed - by former Los Trios Ringbarkus member Neil Gladwin.

Suitcase Royale's signature is its junkyard aesthetic and the set - largely constructed out of roughly hacked pieces of cardboard - is, if anything, even more low-rent than their previous shows. And the plot pays little heed to any kind of narrative sense. Three aviators in various stages of psychological confusion crash in the middle of the desert. Two depart to look for help, heading for a nearby lighthouse, while the third, in the grasp of some mysterious obsession with the cargo, remains behind. The ensuing story might have been written by George Lucas on a bad acid trip, and involves an evil wolfman, a sentient lighthouse, a battery-powered magical amulet and David Bowie.

But the plot is merely an excuse for the real action, which is the disintegration of the show amid a profusion of boy jokes, groaningly recognisable quotations from popular songs and profane language. Light cues are missed, arguments break out among the cast, actors forget their lines or assault each other. And it all happens at breakneck speed, pulling you along with its raw, anarchic energy.

It's all great, even irresistible, fun, but I miss the delicacy that informed their previous shows, in which the performers' full-on testosteronic energy was put in tension with a genuine poignancy. This extends to their use of objects, a feature of all their work: a great deal of the charm of both Felix Listens to the World and Chronicles of a Sleepless Moon was the ingenuity of the props, the compelling realities that could be made out of discarded objects. Here objects are treated with an awesome disrespect, and everything is mugged for laughs. On its own terms, it works: but you can't help feeling this is too easy.

What The Ghosts at Ricketts Hill lacks is the multiple layering that makes a show more than an occasion for transient laughter, the image that punctures the joke and enters a darker and more troubling space. It seems to me that this is a transitional work, Suitcase Royale on the way from one mode to another. In which case, the show to look out for might be the one after this.

Picture: Ella Caldwell and Adrian Mulraney in The Winterling. Photo: Jodie Hutchinson


Casey Bennetto said...

Howdy Alison,

I'd recommend Pig Island's "Simply Fancy" to any looking for something from the Comedy Festival with a bit more of a sophisticated theatrical sensibility to the writing. Their show last year, "The Glass Boat", won the Golden Gibbo award and they're always worth catching up with.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the recommendation, Casey. I think I'm done my Comedy Festival thing this year, but I'll keep an eye out for them in the future.

Casey Bennetto said...

Oh, that's sad - there's so much to see over the next fortnight, a great deal of it (I must say) running counter to the cruelty-as-laughter (or laughter-as-cruelty) approach. I'm representing here for Trades Hall, as I'm spending most of my time there and performing in a coupla shows, but I think there are several shows that would take the fancy of a theatrically-inclined audience.

Lorin Clarke's "Greatness Thrust Upon Them", for instance, reminds me of the early Jane Bodie plays I teched for at the Comedy Festival in 1999 and 2000. Kate McLennan's "The Enthusiasts", down at Town Hall, is essentially a cross-cut between five separate character monologues. And, as I said, the surrealism of Pig Island's work regularly takes them into ambiguously juicy pastures. All recommended to those keen to have a bit of a squiz at ComFest shenanigans without running the risk of being told dick jokes for an hour.

Oh, and The Boy With Tape On His Face, though I suspect that will start selling out soon.

Alison Croggon said...

You're feeding my guilt complex, Casey! They all sound really interesting. (Maybe some readers can go and report). The problem with the Comedy Festival - like the Fringe - is not only that there is so much on, but that it's hard to know where to look, beyond the obvious: in the general theatre scene here, I can usually make educated punts based on the artistic personnel, but when it's all up and coming new names, it gets very difficult to track. The only solution is, of course, to go to everything, which is something I just can't do. So I do rely on others to keep me posted.

richardwatts said...

I'll second Casey's recommendation of 'The Boy with Tape on His Face' - definitely one of the highlights of the 28 (eek!) shows I've seen in the festival so far...

Anonymous said...

Hi all

I'm not sure that seeing every show in Comedy or Fringe is the only solution to finding work by new/emerging artists (esp if you're not on press tix, most people just couldn't afford it!)

Apart from recommendations (and I'd second Casey on the Pig Island guys, they're fantastic) - what else do you think would make it easier to negotiate these large Festivals?


Alison Croggon said...

I wouldn't recommend going to everything for the average punter, even if the bank balance permitted it (and it were humanly possible). The conventional model is to read the critics, talk to people, get recommendations, and go from there. Hence my lurking conscience, which is from a critic's pov. I just have to settle for the gamble, and hearing about what I've missed later. But a solo effort like TN just can't do the 300-act festival thing. I fear my meltdowns become repetitive, but I haven't found a way to solve that one.

The other issue is that if I see too much work, it tends to turn into mulch in my head, which isn't much good if I want to write about it. Better to see fewer and see them better. Two shows a day is my absolute limit, two shows a week about what I can really handle, given that I have a life (a few lives) outside this blog...